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Aboriginal Affairs - Inquiry by Senator Patrick Brazeau

Honourable senators, I rise to address the state of accountability and responsibility for the First Nations citizens of this country.

There is a wonderful phrase that students of history know encapsulates the promise Canada pledges to all its citizens. It was written in the Constitution Act 143 years ago today, and it remains our nation's oath to its people: Peace, order and good government. That promise is an unpretentious guarantee, but I can think of no recipe more necessary to ensure optimal quality of life.

In fact, the phrase dates back long before Confederation. It was a formula that British authorities had passed on to colonial legislatures since 1689. Without governance dedicated to the public good, there can be no lasting peace and there can be no just order.

For those who would mistake this covenant of peace, order and good government as elitist, they could not be more mistaken. These words, as political scientist Stephen Eggleston has written, are the linchpin of government. They are the mantras of free and prosperous people.

Yet there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have for more than a century been denied the full enjoyment of this crucial constitutional blessing.

Canada's First Nations have no guarantees to good government. Quite often they must settle for anything but. Canada's Auditor General has reported that, through no fault of their own, roughly three quarters of First Nations are run by inexperienced, untrained public servants.

The reserve housing system is backlogged with thousands of Aboriginal families waiting for housing. Many of the existing homes on reserves across Canada are mouldy, overcrowded and unfit by most standards for human habitation.

Close to 50 reserves in this country do not have consistent access to safe drinking water. That number was reduced by our government from an astounding 193 reserves in 2006.

Sixty per cent of First Nations citizens living on reserves do not complete high school.

By every social and economic measure, Canada's First Nations are vastly worse off than any other demographic in this country. Yet Canadians have never spent more money than they do now on First Nations programs.

Over $10 billion a year is spent to sustain a reserve system that cannot even sustain something as basic as clean water and safe and adequate housing. No segment of Canadian society has ever been as over-governed as our First Nations, and no segment has lacked good governance so badly.

While Canadians demand, expect and receive accountability from those who govern them, that is not the case on far too many Aboriginal reserves. We would not accept this from non-Aboriginal politicians here in Ottawa. It is grassroots Aboriginals who pay the price for this double standard. First Nations people well know that many of their communities' council governments beset by incompetence, cronyism and corruption are too often considered entirely unremarkable. The abuse of the democratic process — First Nation members being denied their franchise, voters being intimidated or coerced to vote against their free will — is also, sadly, considered unremarkable.

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The abuse of band funds by the powerful and privileged is all too unremarkable, as our chiefs who rule over communities of mere thousands pay themselves from band funds more richly than premiers or prime ministers, while reserve homes and schools crumble around them. These politicians are accountable not to the members of the community that they are meant to serve but to Ottawa. That, as Aboriginal author Calvin Helin has said, is a recipe for corruption.

It should not surprise us that when Harvard University's project on Indian economic development studied the chief causes of poverty and despair on reserves, researchers concluded that poverty and despair were the result of a political problem, not an economic one.

Canada's First Nations face many formidable challenges in addressing some of the most basic social, health and economic issues that were overcome a long time ago elsewhere in Canada. I have no doubt that these challenges, too, can be overcome some day, provided we ensure that First Nations benefit from that most essential Canadian guarantee: peace, order and, most important, good governance.

Hon. Hugh Segal: Will the honourable senator take a question?

Senator Eaton: Certainly.

Senator Segal: I was intrigued by the honourable senator's comments and I support, in large measure, everything she said. Part of what one often hears is that the challenge faced by those who share these concerns is the same sort of challenge Felix Rohatyn faced when he was given the task of refinancing the city of New York, which was bankrupt, and that is, where does one start, and which road does one take first?

One suggestion I have made — and I have heard that others agree with it — is that the only thing to do within our purview in the federal Parliament is to abolish the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs; that the authority of band councils, the fact that they hold power without real democratic accountability, comes from the fact that that authority is conveyed by the act that creates the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, which spends all that money about which the honourable senator speaks, to no apparent benefit for average fellow Canadians who happen to be First Nations.

Are you open to the idea of doing away with that department so as to have a clear break with the past and a fresh approach to enfranchising our First Nations so they can have the same right to peace, order and good government, as we want for all our fellow citizens?

Senator Eaton: Senator, I am not an expert in the way that some of my colleagues are. One point Senator Brazeau made in his speech was that the Assembly of First Nations and the opposition lobbied in 2006 to opt out of the Federal Accountability Act. Even before looking at how to account for INAC's $10 billion a year, and how to make it so that grassroots Aboriginals have a say, perhaps if they were part of the Federal Accountability Act, that could start the process.

Senator Segal: I have a further question, if the honourable senator will accept one.

One argument often made is that, unlike the rest of us, who earn a living and pay taxes — and in return for those taxes demand accountability from those who serve us in elective office, municipally, provincially and federally — in many cases, the funds flow from the federal department to the band councils, not to the individuals who are residents on the reserves. For that reason, they do not have the clout to hold their band councils accountable in the same way that we have the clout as taxpayers to hold accountable those who are elected on our behalf.

One argument is that if we eliminated the department and provided a basic income or some other process for First Nation individuals, which they then were taxed on by their local community, band council or reserve council, as is the case for other Canadians, individual First Nation people would have the same kind of clout that we hope to have as taxpayers for the rest of the population.

Is the honourable senator prepared, particularly in her outstanding work on the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, to reflect on whether that might be a better way ahead than the system we now use?

Senator Eaton: Senator, the discussion is now happening with regard to private property on reserves. If one begins to espouse the idea of being able to have private property on a reserve at some point, then one can perhaps start a taxation system that reflects the person's own worth and that they are part of a community.

The honourable senator has raised valid questions, and I thank him.

Honourable senators, I rise to address the state of accountability and responsibility for the First Nations citizens of this country.

There is a wonderful phrase that students of history know encapsulates the promise Canada pledges to all its citizens. It was written in the Constitution Act 143 years ago today, and it remains our nation's oath to its people: Peace, order and good government. That promise is an unpretentious guarantee, but I can think of no recipe more necessary to ensure optimal quality of life.

In fact, the phrase dates back long before Confederation. It was a formula that British authorities had passed on to colonial legislatures since 1689. Without governance dedicated to the public good, there can be no lasting peace and there can be no just order.

For those who would mistake this covenant of peace, order and good government as elitist, they could not be more mistaken. These words, as political scientist Stephen Eggleston has written, are the linchpin of government. They are the mantras of free and prosperous people.

Yet there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have for more than a century been denied the full enjoyment of this crucial constitutional blessing.

Canada's First Nations have no guarantees to good government. Quite often they must settle for anything but. Canada's Auditor General has reported that, through no fault of their own, roughly three quarters of First Nations are run by inexperienced, untrained public servants.

The reserve housing system is backlogged with thousands of Aboriginal families waiting for housing. Many of the existing homes on reserves across Canada are mouldy, overcrowded and unfit by most standards for human habitation.

Close to 50 reserves in this country do not have consistent access to safe drinking water. That number was reduced by our government from an astounding 193 reserves in 2006.

Sixty per cent of First Nations citizens living on reserves do not complete high school.

By every social and economic measure, Canada's First Nations are vastly worse off than any other demographic in this country. Yet Canadians have never spent more money than they do now on First Nations programs.

Over $10 billion a year is spent to sustain a reserve system that cannot even sustain something as basic as clean water and safe and adequate housing. No segment of Canadian society has ever been as over-governed as our First Nations, and no segment has lacked good governance so badly.

While Canadians demand, expect and receive accountability from those who govern them, that is not the case on far too many Aboriginal reserves. We would not accept this from non-Aboriginal politicians here in Ottawa. It is grassroots Aboriginals who pay the price for this double standard. First Nations people well know that many of their communities' council governments beset by incompetence, cronyism and corruption are too often considered entirely unremarkable. The abuse of the democratic process — First Nation members being denied their franchise, voters being intimidated or coerced to vote against their free will — is also, sadly, considered unremarkable.

(1700)

The abuse of band funds by the powerful and privileged is all too unremarkable, as our chiefs who rule over communities of mere thousands pay themselves from band funds more richly than premiers or prime ministers, while reserve homes and schools crumble around them. These politicians are accountable not to the members of the community that they are meant to serve but to Ottawa. That, as Aboriginal author Calvin Helin has said, is a recipe for corruption.

It should not surprise us that when Harvard University's project on Indian economic development studied the chief causes of poverty and despair on reserves, researchers concluded that poverty and despair were the result of a political problem, not an economic one.

Canada's First Nations face many formidable challenges in addressing some of the most basic social, health and economic issues that were overcome a long time ago elsewhere in Canada. I have no doubt that these challenges, too, can be overcome some day, provided we ensure that First Nations benefit from that most essential Canadian guarantee: peace, order and, most important, good governance.

Hon. Hugh Segal: Will the honourable senator take a question?

Senator Eaton: Certainly.

Senator Segal: I was intrigued by the honourable senator's comments and I support, in large measure, everything she said. Part of what one often hears is that the challenge faced by those who share these concerns is the same sort of challenge Felix Rohatyn faced when he was given the task of refinancing the city of New York, which was bankrupt, and that is, where does one start, and which road does one take first?

One suggestion I have made — and I have heard that others agree with it — is that the only thing to do within our purview in the federal Parliament is to abolish the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs; that the authority of band councils, the fact that they hold power without real democratic accountability, comes from the fact that that authority is conveyed by the act that creates the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, which spends all that money about which the honourable senator speaks, to no apparent benefit for average fellow Canadians who happen to be First Nations.

Are you open to the idea of doing away with that department so as to have a clear break with the past and a fresh approach to enfranchising our First Nations so they can have the same right to peace, order and good government, as we want for all our fellow citizens?

Senator Eaton: Senator, I am not an expert in the way that some of my colleagues are. One point Senator Brazeau made in his speech was that the Assembly of First Nations and the opposition lobbied in 2006 to opt out of the Federal Accountability Act. Even before looking at how to account for INAC's $10 billion a year, and how to make it so that grassroots Aboriginals have a say, perhaps if they were part of the Federal Accountability Act, that could start the process.

Senator Segal: I have a further question, if the honourable senator will accept one.

One argument often made is that, unlike the rest of us, who earn a living and pay taxes — and in return for those taxes demand accountability from those who serve us in elective office, municipally, provincially and federally — in many cases, the funds flow from the federal department to the band councils, not to the individuals who are residents on the reserves. For that reason, they do not have the clout to hold their band councils accountable in the same way that we have the clout as taxpayers to hold accountable those who are elected on our behalf.

One argument is that if we eliminated the department and provided a basic income or some other process for First Nation individuals, which they then were taxed on by their local community, band council or reserve council, as is the case for other Canadians, individual First Nation people would have the same kind of clout that we hope to have as taxpayers for the rest of the population.

Is the honourable senator prepared, particularly in her outstanding work on the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, to reflect on whether that might be a better way ahead than the system we now use?

Senator Eaton: Senator, the discussion is now happening with regard to private property on reserves. If one begins to espouse the idea of being able to have private property on a reserve at some point, then one can perhaps start a taxation system that reflects the person's own worth and that they are part of a community.

The honourable senator has raised valid questions, and I thank him.