Friday, September 19, 2014
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LORNE GUNTER: First Nations' myths vs. reality


There are many factions within Canada’s First Nations, but the two principal blocs, for lack of better labels, are the Realists and the Mythologists. They could also be called the Pro-Development group and the Blame-Everything-on-Whitey-and-Demand-More group.

Shawn Atleo, whose resignation two weeks ago as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) came as a shock, was a Realist. The Idle No More crowd are Mythologists.

The Mythologists have convinced themselves that everything that is wrong with First Nations communities is the fault of someone else – whites, white governments, white corporations, white society, lack of white money – and if only white governments and businesses would give them more money and autonomy everything would magically improve.

Unfortunately, the Realists – who would work with governments to improve education for First Nations students, share in resource development and generally strive for self-improvement – are a minority among Canada’s 630-plus First Nations.

Even more unfortunately, the Realists are in decline within the AFN and the Mythologists are in the ascendancy.

It is the Mythologists who pushed Atleo out. And it will almost certainly be a Mythologist who replaces Atleo when the AFN gets around to selecting a new national chief.

This development is not only very bad for Ottawa-First Nations relations, it is very harmful for the future of First Nations across the country.

To be sure, the treatment of First Nations has been far from stellar. There has been plenty of abuse and many mistakes. But to assert that First Nations continue to be victims of colonialism and government neglect is preposterous.

And policies based on preposterous notions of history and current conditions are doomed from the outset. Any concessions made to the AFN based on Idle No More or Mythologists’ demands are likely only to make matters worse.

For one thing, First Nations are both well-funded and largely autonomous. Are there inefficiencies, waste and uselessness in Ottawa’s dealings with bands across the country? Undoubtedly. Is there unnecessary bureaucracy and excess regulation? Sure.

Welcome to the Club. Inefficiency, waste, uselessness, bureaucracy and regulation are the nature of government. Non-aboriginals suffer all of that, too.

But there are 30 federal departments or agencies that together spend more than $10 billion each year on the 400,000 aboriginals who live on reserves.

That's more than 5% of the federal operating budget on a little more than 1% of the national population. It works out to $25,000 annually for every man, woman and child on reserve, or more than three times what Ottawa spends on non-aboriginals.

Of that $25,000, more than $13,000 goes directly to local band councils to pay for reserve operations such as schools and health care. Another $4,000 to $5,000 per resident goes annually to build or repair housing. That's upwards of $18,000 per person in direct cash payments.

And most of that money comes with few, if any, strings attached. It is supposed to go to services and social programs. It is supposed to be subject to auditing by the federal government. But the truth is there is remarkably little accountability if individual bands choose not to be accountable.

So what are the chances that if all the current money and independence have not solved First Nations’ problems, the additional money and self-government demanded by the Mythologists will provide the cure?

The Mythologists, led by chiefs such as Manitoba’s Derek Nepinak, are threatening to shut down the national economy if Ottawa doesn’t give into their demands, such as scrapping a new First Nations education bill that would add more funding in return for higher standards in on-reserve schools.

If they get their way, the futility and despair on reserves will only worsen.

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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