First Nations’ well-being gap getting worse

torontosun.com -comment
July 13, 2010.   By Mindelle Jacobs, QMI Agency

There is no more agonizing example of the mistaken belief that heaps of money alone will mend broken lives than the ongoing socio-economic catastrophe engulfing Canada’s aboriginals.

In a report quietly released recently, the federal government acknowledged that “there has been little or no progress” in overall community well- being among First Nation and Inuit communities since 2001.

While there was a significant reduction in the well-being gap among First Nation and Inuit communities relative to other Canadian communities between 1981 and 1996, progress between 2001 and 2006 stalled, according to the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada paper.

Not surprisingly, the lowest community well-being scores, which measure education, labour force participation, income and housing, are on reserves on the Prairies, where most aboriginals live.

Among the bottom 100 Canadian communities, 96 were First Nations. Only one aboriginal community ranked in the top 100 Canadian communities — the Tsawwassen First Nation near Vancouver.

In short, despite the billions a year Canada spends on aboriginals, things appear to be getting worse. Between 1991 and 1996, only 18% of First Nations communities experienced a drop in their well-being scores. But by the 2001-06 period, the scores for 36% of those communities declined, compared to only 10% of Canadian communities as a whole.

Tragically, the well-being gap between First Nations and Canadians in general has widened. A host of problems, including dysfunctional native governance and dependence on federal funding, have contributed to the mess, argues John Graham, a senior associate at the Institute on Governance.

In a recent policy paper he wrote, he points out that First Nations governments are huge — perhaps the largest local governments in the world.

‘Curse of aid’

Per capita expenditures of First Nations are roughly 10 times those of the average municipality, Graham observes. And while First Nations have wider responsibilities than municipalities, they lack the checks and balances that governments in other parts of Canada face.

The executive functions are “fused” in chief and council and there is no official opposition to hold the government to account, notes Graham.

That lack of balance threatens accountability and creates “in” and “out” groups, often defined by family affiliation, “with few options for the ‘outs’ other than to blame and complain,” writes Graham.

Then there’s what Graham describes as the “curse of aid” — that large fiscal transfers to reserves have created dependency and fostered unaccountable governance.

Part of the solution is for the federal and provincial governments to develop more specific initiatives to help native communities in the worst straits, Graham said Monday in an interview.

“We’ve got communities here that may be worse off than the slums of Mumbai,” he says. “If this isn’t the top issue of our social policy agenda, what is?”

Aboriginals were historically mistreated but they have to move on, warns Graham. Seeing yourself as a victim is counterproductive, he says. “It’s so compelling in one sense because it’s so nice to be able to blame somebody else. But as a development strategy, it’s a disaster.”

mindy.jacobs@sunmedia.ca

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