01/10/2013 01:21 EST | Updated 03/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Idle No More: First Nations Governance Coded To Fail


Monday's release of a devastating audit of Attawapiskat's finances delivered what looked like a knockout blow to the Idle No More movement. Then Tuesday brought word of a community in full lock-down mode as a Global TV crew was escorted out of the reserve.

Canadians were treated to our own domestic example of media as blood sport, a game in which Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence came off as disastrously outwitted and outmatched.

But while Spence is down, she's not yet out. Her critics might do well to read the final report of Canada's former auditor-general, Sheila Fraser, reviewed below, before condemning her.

And it may be a huge mistake to think that the resolve of Idle No More, a grassroots movement for transformative change in First Nations governance, can be extinguished by an act as simple as the public humiliation of the leader of a tiny destitute North Ontario village.

Idle No More won't vanish just because a prime minister could and did make mincemeat out of Spence in front of the whole country; it just might get stronger.


In her final report to Parliament in June 2011, Fraser took the extraordinary step of calling special attention to First Nations governance, a report that should be required reading for every commenter on this subject.

While Canada's journalists stand agog at the revelation that a remote village of 1,500 souls would have trouble accounting for over $100 million in spending, anyone reading the Fraser report could predict it with their eyes closed.

The Deloitte & Touche audit of Attawapiskat is a textbook outcome of the fatal weakness in Canada's current model of First Nations governance, which is coded to fail. There could be hundreds of Attawapiskats.

Here's why.

Canadians across the country are accustomed to provincial governments delivering health care, education, social services, policing, housing, and a host of other services managed by a sophisticated network of highly trained and educated specialists. Fraser notes:

(P)rovinces have developed school boards, health services boards, and social service organizations. These organizations... supply vital expertise... and develop a means of efficient and effective delivery of services.

Armies of managers and accountants control complex systems designed for accuracy and accountability. And all governments have trouble maintaining detailed records of the myriad transactions involved. Yet the level of service Canadians take as a birthright is outside the experience of First Nations communities. Canadian First Nations nationally comprise a population roughly the size of New Brunswick, and Fraser outlines the model that serves them:

The federal government established each First Nation band as an autonomous entity and provides separate program funding to each. Many of these First Nations are small, consisting of communities that often have fewer than 500 residents. There are more than 600 First Nations across Canada. Many of them are hampered by the lack of expertise to meet the administrative requirements for delivering key programs within their reserves. They often do not have the benefit of school boards, health boards, or other regional bodies to support the First Nations as they provide services to community members.

(Bolded sentence is my emphasis.)

In other words, each one of our 600 First Nations communities, many of them mere hamlets, separately delivers the full spectrum of services normally provided by a single provincial government. And they do this for one of the most troubled and vulnerable populations in the world, largely without benefit of highly trained employees necessary to competently oversee the process, in a high-cost environment, on a smaller per capita budget.

Does anyone know what the average First Nations chief's level of training and management experience is? Or the average training and experience of band councillors? How many building inspectors live within 50 miles of Attawapiskat? How about CAs, CGAs or project managers capable of supervising and maintaining records on multiple construction sites?


Fraser puts her finger on the problem: we have made completely inappropriate demands of tiny villages. Let's be honest. Most Canadian mayors, First Nations or not, could never do the job Chief Spence was expected to perform with the experience, assets and human resources at her disposal.

First Nations leadership must accept responsibility here as well. They are obligated to negotiate an achievable governance model.

And this is not just a matter of concern to First Nations citizens. Canada as a whole has vital national interests that require moderate stewardship. A calm, measured and understanding response to this situation will take the government far. Backing First Nations citizens into a corner and humiliating their iconic leaders is not a promising start to real engagement with a situation that rightly demands a remedy.

No one needs responsive government more than Canada's most vulnerable citizens, and we are failing them. The responsibility lies with us, and with the First Nations leadership, to fix this.

Idle No More calls for transformative rather than incremental change in their system of government. Their most convincing argument can be found right in the pages of the former auditor-general's final report to Parliament.

Idle No More: In Photos