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‘Sovereignty' would do little for Canada's Natives

Author: Tanis Fiss 2004/12/02
The National Post recently printed a series of essays by Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Phil Fontaine, advocating a large-scale transfer of powers from federal and provincial governments to native bands. Mr. Fontaine sees aboriginal sovereignty as the key to prosperity and empowerment. But his plan would merely exacerbate the existing problems faced by Canada's natives.

Mr. Fontaine believes native governments should wield power over health care, education, natural resources, job training, social assistance, child and family services, adoption, wills, adoption, marriage, divorce, property rights, language, and a host of other areas. But power without accountability is a recipe for corruption and abuse. Even under current arrangements, Department of Indian Affairs audit reports show that some native governments already fail to properly account for how money is spent. If "sovereign" aboriginal bands were merely spending their own members' money, then the question of accountability would be a local one.

But native governments rely heavily on fiscal transfer payments from Ottawa. The federal government spends approximately $8-billion annually on Aboriginal programs. Mr. Fontaine argues that federal spending on Aboriginal affairs decreased during the 1990s. But that is true only if the spending of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is considered in isolation. There are 12 federal departments that fund native programs. Total per-capita spending on native programs rose in real terms from $7,289 to $8,479 between 1991 and 2002.

There is little evidence that the need for such massive cash transfers would cease if Mr. Fontaine's model of government were established, since only a few bands have the economic resources to be self-sufficient. Mr. Fontaine's proposal is essentially that natives be permitted to run their own affairs at the continued expense of the Canadian taxpayer.

Given that the typical native band has only a few hundred or thousand members, a far better idea than the grandiose conceit of "sovereignty" would be the more limited model presented by municipalities. Local governments have their powers delegated from the provinces, and much of their funding comes from property taxes. Since native Canadians have a unique place within our Constitution, the municipal governance model might be modified so that the powers of native governments are delegated directly from Ottawa, rather than from the provinces.

Such a model would provide a way for natives to hold their local governments accountable. Native bands would be able to tax community members and property owners in the same way as other local governments. Like taxpayers everywhere, natives would demand to know how their money is spent.

Unfortunately, a municipal-style model for aboriginal bands would require a fundamental legal change in regard to reserve lands. A system of property taxation works only if lands are held by individuals. But under the Indian Act, the land comprising Canadian reserves is currently held in trust by the Crown and is controlled collectively by native band councils. Real estate is a valuable resource. And the inability of reserve-resident natives to own their own land is a major reason why many natives live in poverty.

While not as glamorous as Mr. Fontaine's plan to provide aboriginals with sweeping powers, a plan that would include land reform and incorporate a municipal style of governance would do far more to improve the life of ordinary aboriginals. Whether in regard to the allotment of special sovereign powers or restrictions on land use, treating one group of Canadians differently from all others is morally wrong, and bad policy as well.