17 February 1997
Power to the people key to solving natives’ problems

This is the story of the latest failure to put right Canada’s shameful history of relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was made up of a number of worthies from the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities; it toiled for four years and cost more than $50 million. Its recent final report is massive; over 4500 pages. It documents the truly scandalous situation of aboriginal peoples, in terms of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, dependence, suicide and despair.

The portrait painted in the commission’s report is appalling, but the commission fails to offer anything like an adequate solution. They merely repeat the errors of today’s fashionable thinking about the plight of aboriginals. And they propose “solutions” that can only result in the further exploitation of aboriginal peoples. The chief difference compared to today would be that the aboriginal leadership will no longer have to share its dominance over aboriginal peoples with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Self-government and more money is the magic recipe proposed to solve the problems of aboriginal peoples. Self-government to give native people more control over their lives, and more resources to give them an economic base and to close the wealth gap with other Canadians.

If these innovations are to produce useful effects, however, individual aboriginals must be able to hold their leadership directly and vigorously accountable.

The Commission says accountability can be based on democratic control of aboriginal institutions of self-government. This is a totally inadequate basis, however, and will not work.

The reason is the scale of the resources that are to be handed over to these governments compared to the wealth of individual aboriginal people. All resources, the housing, the natural resource base, the aboriginally owned companies, the social services, everything is to be handed to and controlled by aboriginal governments.

Eastern Europe showed us that when government oversteps some critical threshold of ownership of society’s resources, it becomes an uncontrollable power answerable only to itself. Its population, nominally sovereign, becomes wholly dependent on the goodwill of powerful politicians and bureaucrats who can use and abuse their power to further their own ends.

In the Commission’s world, one misstep and you may be exiled from the community, access to housing, social services and perhaps even your income cut off. This does not encourage an informed and demanding citizenry.

When society’s resources are more widely dispersed among the people, government is cut down to manageable size. It can be held to account more effectively by the people. Individuals don’t endanger their entire welfare by challenging government decisions.

Governments in Canada have become too powerful and occupy too much social and economic space while owning only a fraction of our resources and spending less than half of our GDP. The blunt instruments of political accountability are inadequate to hold our governors to account. We would not accept for ourselves the overweening power we propose blithely to hand over to aboriginal governments on the pretext that democracy will be sufficient to keep them in check.

The likely outcome is a powerful aboriginal ruling class using petty coercion and corruption to maintain their population in a state of dependence. This sounds entirely too much like the current state of affairs for my liking. The main difference would be that distant and inscrutable white bureaucrats would be replaced by distant and inscrutable aboriginal bureaucrats.

If we want the commission’s dream of achieving aboriginal regeneration and rebirth to be realized, if we want to make massive transfers of resources work for aboriginal individuals, if we want to avoid waste, mismanagement and corruption in programs for aboriginals, then the commission has chosen the wrong instruments.

The only avenue that will work is to make individual aboriginals responsible for themselves, to give them directly, individually, control over the bulk of the resources that will flow from government programs, land claims and all the rest. Then they will have the power, responsibility and accountability necessary to take control over their lives, to become full citizens, capable of holding their governments to account, and able to participate in the wider Canadian society with confidence and strength.

Many will be horrified by this idea because they are still imbued with the paternalistic assumption that only aboriginal governments know what to do to build the society, the lives and the hopes of aboriginals. At the very least they claim that aboriginals are not ready for this kind of control over their lives, that too many mistakes will be made that their wiser leaders would avoid. The great English historian Macaulay had the right answer to such objections: There is only one cure for the evils which newly acquired freedom produces; and that is freedom.