Novel cure

Lorne Gunter
Montreal Gazette
July 1, 1998

Tom Flanagan’s cure for what ails Indian reserves is novel, especially for a conservative.

It’s not more federal or provincial money, or fewer controls over existing transfers. Indians don’t need enhanced cultural identity or greater control over natural resources, health care, education, child welfare, policing or criminal justice.

If Indians want self-government, they must be prepared to be taxed.

Reserves have become "rentier" states, Flanagan writes in the summer issue of the smart, attractive libertarian-conservative magazine The Next City. Money, often-vast sums of it, flows into rentier states (such as the oil-rich emirates in the Persian Gulf and the oil-rich reserves of Alberta) whether or not anyone in the state earns it.

The Stoney Nation west of Calgary has become an economic and social disaster area, despite receiving nearly $80,000 per family each year in federal transfers and oil and gas royalties.

"Democracy and the rule of law can’t take hold" in rentier states, says Flanagan, "because citizens, not having to pay for government, do not take owner-hip of it. The population develops a … mentality in which reward rests on chance and situation rather than work.


The old battle cry, "No taxation without representation," is also true in reverse. There can be no meaningful representation without taxation. While the relationship is far from perfect, the theory in non-aboriginal society (and mostly the practice) is that taxation binds the interest of those taxed to the ongoing deliberations of their governors, while compelling the governors to be accountable for the manner in which they spend the taxes they collect.

Involving ordinary Indians in the governance of their reserves. Flanagan continues, would help reduce the corruption, nepotism, cronyism and incompetence that plagues far too many reserves, and is the true impediment to self-government. Contrary to the popular myths propagated by white liberals and Indian politicians, the last vestiges of colonialism and systemic prejudice, if they exist at all, are not what it is standing between Indians and self-reliance.

For instance, the three chiefs on the Stoney reserve together collected $450,000 tax free in 1997, the same year their reserve ran up a $5.6-million deficit. Twelve, mostly young Stoneys, out of a total population of 3,300, died "unnatural deaths by suicide, accident, violent crime or drug overdose," yet a dozen band members held a budget meeting in Phoenix.

It is routine on reserves across Canada for newly elected or re-elected councillors to fire band employees appointed by the previous council and replace them with family or clan members.

"None of this is to say that native politics is more factional than Canadian politics generally. All politics is factional," Flanagan contends. "But whereas Canada’s factionalism operates on a large scale and in a formalized way… pervading diverse linguistic, regional and economic organizations; native factionalism operates on a small scale and in an informal way, with competition limited to kin groups and friendship networks."


In other words, reserve politics aren’t factional as much as they are personal. And there are no dirtier politics than personal politics.

The problems of bad management and nepotism on reserves are compounded by the small scale of reserve governments and the enormous range of responsibilities they seek to take on.

"In the wider Canadian system," Flanagan explains, "these functions would be parceled out to numerous bodies – federal and provincial departments, regulatory commissions, courts, city councils, school boards, police commissions, hospital boards," and so on. Not that such bodies do not exist on reserves, but when they do; band councils exercise much greater control over them than outside politicians do over similar agencies.

"This concentration of authority lets a small group of officials direct large volumes of money passing through the community (which are also often the only significant source of income in the community), making the potential rewards of holding office in an aboriginal government far larger than, say, for a city councillor (or) a mayor of a small town."

Because bands are too small to provide a talent pool from which to draw’ enough capable administrators and because the potential for abuse of office is so great, Flanagan expects very little improvement soon. So he also suggests encouraging more young Indians to move off the reserve. "Would that be such a bad thing?" the University of Calgary political scientist asks.

Nearly half of treaty Indians already live off-reserve. And contrary to the propaganda, Indians off the reserve are more likely to earn a living wage and are less prone to social ills.


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