Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Why aboriginal audits miss the real problem

Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard are co-authors of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. They recently co-edited Approaches to Aboriginal Education in Canada: Searching for Solutions.

Since the 1990s, governments in Canada have expressed concerns about financial accountability in aboriginal communities, and have proposed policies to improve aboriginal governance. The most recent effort is the Conservative government’s decision to post “Recipient Audit” reports of aboriginal communities and organizations on the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website. The department notes that this new policy is being implemented because “Canadians, including members of First Nation communities, want to know that their tax dollars are being used to improve community living conditions, and to create jobs and economic opportunities for First Nation communities”.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt maintains that the release of these audits, in addition to obtaining detailed spending reports mandated by the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, will be “transformational” for aboriginal communities. Although Mr.Valcourt maintains that the majority of aboriginal leaders want to be transparent, seven out of the 11 audits posted found inappropriately spent government funds. He further argues that publicized audits give community members the information that they need to hold their leaders accountable.

Mr. Valcourt’s assertion, about the “transformational” nature of its policy to improve accountability, indicates a profound misunderstanding of the circumstances and cultural dynamics of aboriginal communities. The social problems, low education and literacy levels suffered in aboriginal communities will make it impossible for most members to access and understand the complex financial information that the federal government is posting on its website. And even if community members were able to retrieve and understand this information, the culture of tribal loyalty that pervades isolated aboriginal communities will make it difficult for individuals to hold leaders accountable. Critics in small, close-knit communities are likely to suffer reprisals if they oppose the chief and council, and voting leaders out of office could simply result in the transference of nepotistic control into another influential family’s hands.

The generally dysfunctional character of aboriginal community leadership and administration remains deeply entrenched because of the influence of an industry of lawyers, consultants and other professionals that benefit from the status quo of native dependency.

These opportunists encourage a culture of opposition – to virtually any government attempt to improve aboriginal conditions – on the basis of entitlement for past injustices. They then, through their advocacy “research”, construct apologetics that justify aboriginal isolation and marginalization. This was recently documented by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, in the case of devolved responsibilities to aboriginal child welfare agencies in British Columbia. Ms. Turpel-Lafond found that $66-million was spent, largely on meetings and consultations, with no improvement in the services provided to vulnerable aboriginal children.

With respect to improving accountability in aboriginal communities, the machinations of the Aboriginal Industry can be illustrated by the actions of the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association of Canada (AFOA) – an organization formed in 1999 in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. With a board of 11, a staff of nine, and a secretariat of seven, as well as seven boards for its regional chapters, the AFOA’s stated purpose is “to help aboriginals better manage and govern their communities and organizations through effective financial management”. In spite of the fact that the AFOA was created to help aboriginal communities meet their accountability obligations, 15 years and millions of dollars later the association comes out against the audits with the veiled threat that they can “compromise the relationship” between aboriginal peoples and the Crown.

The conflict-oriented and inept nature of aboriginal policy in Canada emerged historically out of the constant efforts by governments to offload their responsibility for aboriginal peoples. This began with the residential schools, where responsibility for education was offloaded to the churches. Offloading is continuing through the publicizing of recipient audits. Instead of holding aboriginal governments to account, the government is leaving this up to community members. Similarly, the government does not provide high quality education, health care and housing to aboriginal communities. It transfers funds to the aboriginal leadership to arrange for these services, and when that money is squandered on sinecures, travel and consultancy fees, the government’s solution is to advertise this malfeasance on its website. This will do nothing to “improve community living conditions” for native people, but will deflect the blame for the continuing policy failure.

Self-government proponents demand that more responsibilities be given to aboriginal communities because aboriginal “nations” should have control over the programs and services properly provided by provincial and federal levels of government. The lack of expertise and capacity in dependent and isolated tribal entities results in very low levels of service provided. Millions of dollars are also diverted to the various “experts” that work in aboriginal organizations such as the AFOA, aboriginal child welfare agencies and indigenous cultural institutes. Demanding “accountability” and “transparency” that can never be realized in small and poorly-functioning tribal communities is ineffective and hugely wasteful.

Were the government to accept its responsibility to native people, and become accountable for providing education, health care and housing, it would be the first step in eliminating the nepotism, resource squandering and entitlement orchestrated by the Aboriginal Industry.

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