There is probably no more famous Chief in all of Canada than Chief Clarence Louie of Osoyoos, British Columbia. Whenever the issue of First Nations comes up in a news piece, you can lay a very safe bet on Chief Louie being raised in the comments section as an example how all First Nations leaders ought to be. Snippets of a speech he gave in Fort McMurray in 2006 will be quoted:
“I can’t stand people who are late,” he says into the microphone. “Indian Time doesn’t cut it… My first rule for success is ‘Show up on time.’ My No. 2 rule for success is follow Rule No. 1… If your life sucks, it’s because you suck… Quit your sniffling…Join the real world – go to school or get a job…Get off of welfare. Get off your butt.”
He also says the time has come to “get over it.” No more whining about 100-year-old failed experiments. No foolishly looking to the Queen to protect rights.”
To be fair, it’s not just the media repeating these quotes; Chief Louie himself seems to avoid letting these sound bites gather dust.
Chief Louie is the hero of the hard-working, tax-paying average Joe Canadian, saying things about Indigenous people that Settlers just can’t get away with these days (although they do, of course they do! Conrad Black, Tom Flanagan and many others have all said similar things, and they’re just fine). Widely lauded as the chief who “took his band from rags to riches” Clarence Louie is not only viewed as a rugged, hard-working businessman, he is also often seen as the antithesis to “all those other Chiefs” who are assumed to be rolling around in money siphoned off from the taxpayer.
Yet most of the people invoking him have no idea about some of his other views:
“Residents of Osoyoos aren’t happy that the name of Haynes Point Provincial Park will soon be changed to an aboriginal name, they can “suck it up,” says Chief Clarence Louie…“To non-native people, Haynes might be a hero, but to us he’s a land thief,” Louie said…
The agreement [to change the name] followed the discovery last year of bones buried at Haynes Point that were radiocarbon dated to about 1,224 years old – proving that they belonged to a First Nations ancestor.
Louie said the provincial government wanted [his band] “to be good little Indians” and dig the bones up and bury them on the reserve… “I told [them] we’re not going to move those bones,” Louie said.
“I told the government your armies don’t scare us, your RCMP don’t scare us, your SWAT teams don’t scare us, because if you want to have a battle like they did at Ipperwash, we could have the same battle here at Haynes Point because we wouldn’t even have to make phone calls. If a standoff is going to occur, there’d be natives from Ontario with us over there.”
I’m not sure if the average fan of Chief Louie would consider these views incompatible, but I have my suspicions. I think people misinterpret the “no more whining about 100-year old failed experiments” to mean he supports assimilation. Certainly, the fact that the Okanagan’s first prison is located on Osoyoos land suggests an acceptance of the carceral state, but when viewed through more than a few selected quotes from a decade ago it seems clear that Clarence Louis is not letting Canada off the hook for contemporary or historic wrongs.
What does this have to do with the myth of the corrupt chief and band council?
Actually, that’s the question I have. I started asking myself this question when I saw that in almost every instance of an online discussion about corruption among First Nations, Chief Louie was brought up as though he is some sort of trump card. Like “ha! This guy is no-nonsense, he thinks you’re lazy too, and if more Chiefs were like him you’d probably stop acting like Indians and just be Canadians, like the rest of us!”
I started to look at more of the discussions about “corrupt chiefs” and realized that most of the rhetoric is about a desire to have First Nations governments be more like Canadian governments (which are believed to be less corrupt). Chief Louie appeals to this desire, based on some of the things he has said about First Nations participation in economic development.
There is also a perception out there among many Canadians, that First Nations bands are based on traditional Indigenous governance systems, and that those systems are inherently corrupt. Chief Louie appeals to people who believe this, because he is seen as someone who rejects the status quo of Indigenous governance, choosing a style closer to Canadian administration. He is made into the archetype of the “successful Chief”, based on cursory examination of some of his stated beliefs.
So if Canadians truly believe that First Nations governments are traditional governance systems, no wonder there is such pressure to get rid of those “traditional systems” and replace them with something more familiar to Canadians! After all, one thing Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can actually agree on, is the fact that First Nations governments are a really crappy system.
Wait, aren’t Chiefs and Councils traditional Indigenous governance?
No, not even close. Chiefs and band councils were created by the Indian Act, which as you should know by now is a piece of Canadian legislation. The terms “chief” and “band council” may sound authentically Indigenous, but they are anthropological terms that do not reflect traditional governance systems at all. Don’t forget, First Nations are incredibly diverse and their traditional leaders cannot all be thought of as “chiefs” and not all had “councils”!
For this reason, many Indigenous people distinguish between traditional leaders, who are chosen according to specific Indigenous legal protocols, and “Indian Act leaders” who are assigned authority under Canadian legislation. Unfortunately only Indian Act leaders are afforded any sort of recognition under Canadian law.
Much like municipalities are empowered by provincial legislation to choose mayors and city councilors, First Nations are empowered by federal legislation (the Indian Act) to choose chiefs and band councilors.
To make sure we’re on the same page here, municipalities are not a third order of government. Provinces have certain powers under the Constitution such as over things like health, education and infrastructure. Provinces can, through legal instruments such as charters or acts, assign to municipalities the right to make local decisions over these categories, as well as delivering services. Municipalities then become responsible for services like ambulances, policing, by-law enforcement and so on. Provincial governments worry about the “big picture” rather than micromanaging municipalities, and in return, municipalities have some modicum of local control. However, that control is merely “on loan”, because the power lies in the province, not the municipality. Provinces can amalgamate or disband municipalities any time they want.
First Nations band councils are also delegated power, except that in their case, the power flows from the federal government, not the provinces, and things are much more confusing than it is for regular municipalities. It is also much harder to amalgamate or disband First Nations. The federal government has power under the Constitution over “Indians and land reserved for Indians”, so even though healthcare (as one example) is a provincial power for everyone else, it becomes a federal power when dealing with First Nations. Further, although there are provincial ministries that govern municipal affairs, none exercise as much control over municipalities as Indian Affairs does over First Nations.
This information is important for two reasons:
- it clarifies that First Nations governments are actually Canadian-created and controlled governments, under the Indian Act and;
- it highlights the way in which on-reserve decisions are complicated by federal versus provincial delegation of power.
Municipalities have access to all sorts of legislation and infrastructure from the provinces to help them deliver services. This includes provincial building codes, curriculum development and many other legislative and development supports. It also includes provincial funding and bureaucratic infrastructure.
On reserve, there is often a huge hole where federal legislation, physical, and bureaucratic infrastructure should be. For example, there is no federal building code that applies on reserve and there is no federal curriculum for First Nations schools. Federal funding tends to be deficient compared to provincial funding available for the same services off-reserve. First Nations have access only to Indian Affairs bureaucrats for “support”, rather than to dedicated public servants who are experts in their specific fields. As a result, First Nations Indian Act governments must carry out a range of activities that municipalities simply do not have to worry about.
What this means is that First Nations have to work with a cobbled together set of policies overseen by Indian Affairs, rather than definitive pieces of legislation that were developed in consultation with First Nations communities. Instead of a robust, well-build structure of support and funding, First Nations must contend with something that was put together with a dollar-store glue gun and some duct tape. On top of that, chief and council are in charge of delivering municipal-like services as well as delivering services that would otherwise be the responsibility of the provinces.
I thought comparing First Nations to municipalities is fairly accurate?
Not really, no. You will often see people comparing say, the salaries of chief and council of a First Nation, to mayors and councilors from similar-sized municipalities. This comparison misses a lot of vital differences in the roles that elected officials in First Nations are required to take on, and does not provide much accuracy at all. Let’s take the time to explore that a little with a couple of examples. Many thanks to Robert Janes (
@rjmjanes) and Russ Diabo (@) (for discussing many of these points on Twitter.
Roles and responsibilities (Education):
- Municipal school board in charge of hiring teachers and staff. Province provides bureaucratic support via Ministry of Education, including curricular support and infrastructure.
- Most First Nations do not have school boards. Chief and council responsible for hiring teachers and staff, developing curriculum, allocating funds for infrastructure and overseeing all maintenance and construction of educational facilities.
Roles and responsibilities (Land):
- Municipal zoning by-laws. Province administers land title system.
- First Nations administer very complex title system on reserve. Chief and council negotiate complicated right of way, easements, engage in duty-to-consult, land treaty entitlement and addition-to-reserve processes as well as negotiations related to treaty breaches related to land. Often must engage in these processes at provincial and federal levels.
Roles and responsibilities (Corporations and trust funds):
- Municipal corporations responsible to provinces.
- Many FNs have band-owned corporations that are managed by chief and council for the benefit of the band. Chief and council are also responsible for directing major trust funds.
Roles and responsibilities (Social assistance):
- Municipalities do not have direct responsibility for this, services funded, managed and delivered by provinces.
- Chief and council administer and deliver social assistance services to band members. This includes child services, income support, employment training, social housing, addictions counseling and so on. This is a major part of FN government duties.
Roles and responsibilities (Health):
- Again, municipalities do not have direct responsibility for this. Health services funded, managed and delivered by provinces with some input and participation by municipal government.
- Firs Nations administer and deliver health services on reserve including nursing stations, negotiations for emergency medical transport (in communities with no road access this means air ambulances).
These are just a few examples of the differences between the responsibilities of municipal governments versus First Nation Indian Act governments. Trying to compare them straight across the board based only on similar size, is not an exercise likely to result in much clarity.
Chief and council are not just elected officials, they must also act as negotiators with Indian Affairs, and with provincial and federal government ministries (health, education, fisheries and oceans, and so many more), as well as sitting as CEO and Board for First Nations corporations. First Nations governments are responsible for filling in all the gaps left by lack of legislation and bureaucratic support at the federal level, otherwise provided to municipalities by the provinces. This requires an intense amount of reporting, travel, and personal time as First Nations simply do not have the human resources available to them in order to delegate that work.
What does any of this have to do with all those corrupt chiefs I keep hearing about?
Well, now we understand that First Nations governments: are not traditional but rather are Indian Act creations; have powers analogous to municipalities but with less local control and less funding; and have more responsibility to deliver services to residents than municipalities, we can better discuss the accusation of inherent corruption. This piece is already looooooong enough, so that will be the subject of Part II.