Skip to content

Why do some First Nations struggle with governance?

There is no shortage of stories about problems with First Nations governance, many with alarming headlines that give the impression of widespread corruption.

There is no shortage of stories about problems with First Nations governance, many with alarming headlines that give the impression of widespread corruption.

Given the frequency of negative coverage, it was not surprising that in a 2013 poll conducted for Postmedia News, results showed that most Canadians believed that First Nations mismanaged funds. Those surveyed did not want money sent to reserves unless First Nations were independently audited.

More unsettling was the complete disregard of historical factors and ongoing legacies of colonialism as the same poll found that 60 per cent of Canadians believed that “most of the problems First Nations people face are brought on by themselves.”

The federal government shared in the common belief that corruption in First Nations communities was prevalent and introduced laws to curb alleged problems. These included the failed 2002 First Nations Governance Act, the 2006 Federal Accountability Act, the 2013 First Nations Financial Transparency Act and the 2014 First Nations Fair Elections Act.

Despite the persistence of negative stories and the initiation of laws, systematic evidence that most First Nations governments in Canada were immoral and mishandled funds has not been forthcoming.

Critics, for example, often cite reports by the Auditor General and Indian Affairs as verification of extensive financial misconduct and political wrongdoing. The Auditor General, however, stated in its 2002 report that it was not the auditor of First Nations and only had the authority to audit federal departments. When their cooperation was needed, First Nations participated in audits on a voluntary basis.

Moreover, Indian Affairs reported that in 2017, 142 of the 618 First Nations in Canada were in various levels of default management. While not ideal, the figure of 23 per cent of First Nations in default management did not support the conclusion most band governments were crooked.

Although hard evidence of widespread corruption has yet to materialize, the default management figure of 23 per cent indicated that governance problems in some First Nations communities existed.

Why do some First Nations struggle with governance? Contrary to the opinion that First Nations have only themselves to blame, a more reasonable explanation is band governance, and the ineffectiveness that can result from governing under that structure, is the root of the problem.

Band governance originated from the Indian Act and set out the way First Nations operate their governments. Because band governance is a prodigy of the Indian Act, the political troubles have often been attributed to this law.

Undoubtedly, the Indian Act forced First Nations to abandon their traditional governance structures and adopt the foreign system of band governance. Some believe the dramatic political changes brought about by Indian Act band governance have contributed to the political problems experienced by several First Nations.

These changes include the replacement of direct democracy with representative democracy, consensus decision-making with majority rule, the separation of political power with concentration, collectivism with individualism, and traditional forms of accountability with upward ministerial accountability.

To understand the challenges that some First Nations communities face, it will be helpful to take a closer look at how the Indian Act has affected First Nations governance. Keep an eye on this column, next month I will examine the effects of band elections on clan-based governance systems.

Dr. Terry Poucette is an assistant teaching professor at the school of public administration at the University of Victoria, where she also earned her PhD. She is a member of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and her research interests include First Nations governance and Indigenous leadership.