Smear of First Nations over chiefs’ salaries overlooks facts
TheStar.com – opinion/editorial opinion
Published On Wed Dec 15 2010. Sara Mainville
Reporting on First Nations in Canada needs to get down to personal, fact-based issues in order to gain a true understanding of the dynamics and diverse outcomes emerging from the social experiment of colonialism, Indian reserves and residential schools.
While I can find no excuse for the high salaries of chiefs recently reported by the news media, I understand certain contexts that likely are unfamiliar to reporters.
My grandfather was a chief. Probably most successful First Nation members say that, and truthfully I can. I can find his name in the land claim files I have looked at for my community. He advocated for our rights, travelling by foot and thumb to Ottawa to convince the Crown to uphold their promises to the Couchiching First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
Now that I work on some of those long ago claims as a lawyer, I do so with the same values and convictions as my grandfather, and I also am a councillor for my First Nation.
Chiefs, I was told growing up, need to be criticized internally, not given a blank cheque to do as they please. I do believe that we have to hold them in high esteem as well — they are our chief, our community’s leader.
Members of the older generation retain a version of the old tradition by ensuring that leaders are tested, tried and then honoured for their accomplishments. Chiefs had to be ready to be chiefs.
I learned that when I was 22, freshly graduated from university, when I was asked by another young person to run for chief. While I value the fact that a few lent me their votes, I know very clearly that I was not ready for the position. It wasn’t until I was 28 that I ran for the position of councillor when asked.
Even then, I wasn’t ready. I was bruised by the trials and testing, particularly by members who had forgotten the old values and pressed council based on self-interest and self-dealing, and by the Department of Indian Affairs, whose policies and funding regime lead to financial mismanagement if a council doesn’t have a good relationship with the local banker.
I left for law school but the chief whose term started with mine has kept his post to the present day. When I moved back home more than a year ago, I wanted to work for my community.
As I sat in the band administrative office, hearing who would be nominated by a few of the 2,000 members of my First Nation, one of the handful of nominators in the room (electoral apathy being epidemic across Canada, including our First Nations) asked me if I would put my name in for councillor. I agreed. I was already working for the community as a lawyer and I was experienced, with a knowledge of administrative fairness, policy development and conflict management.
Many communities regard nomination to council as an honour. Based on the old value system regarding leadership, it is assumed that if you give more as a leader, you take less in remuneration. Our council receives an annual honorarium of $12,000; our chief receives less than $60,000, despite having been in office since 1997.
While we have an overall population of just over 2,000 members, less than 900 live in the community. They experience many of the problems found in northern First Nations, and we have several claims, legal rights and policy issues to deal with.
It is a busy agenda. As the local lawyer, I work on these matters, very careful regarding my billing and advice, because it impacts me, my family, my neighbours and the future generations of my community.
In smaller communities, including our neighbouring municipalities, leaders wear several hats. In Couchiching, the staff member leading the charge against OxyContin and other prescription drug issues — a caring man with past terms as councillor — was also elected to council.
The economic development officer, who has done good work helping people start businesses and access job training, serves on council as well. She also does project management work because of skills she developed over the years.
And the Healing Centre director also is on council.
If you take total income into account, and didn’t know you were looking at both staff wages and councillor honoraria, it might look like they are earning more than their fair share. I agree, it’s a difficult balancing act, and I take care regarding conflicts, real and perceived.
Ever-present traditional values — rules that govern us as indigenous peoples — shield us from mismanagement. Indian Affairs Canada brought different values into our communities through their Indian Agents, with their history of self-dealing, a policy we need to root out.
It is not my chief and council’s salaries that are keeping our young men and women mired in self-doubt and looking to their future with trepidation rather than hope.
If, in fact, First Nations were allowed to manage our communities through agreements extracted from Indian Affairs policy and funding mechanisms, you would see hope come back to our community, fulfilling the promise my grandfather saw a generation ago.
Setting 633 First Nations on a path to self-government is achievable in our lifetime if a strategy is endorsed over the next 10 to 20 years, with those bands that are ready for independence allowed to go first. Staying within the Indian Affairs regime will continue to overburden our communities with a different, conflicting value system.
There is hope coming, but more of the same old Canadian Indian policy is not going to open that door.
Sara Mainville is a lawyer and member of the Couchiching First Nation band council.
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