Joseph QuesnelIs Ottawa’s promised nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples mainly about protecting the power of First Nation leaders and ignoring the interests of the grassroots?

The first sign in that direction occurred in December, when the Trudeau government announced it was taking teeth out of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, a piece of legislation that provides basic local financial data to First Nation band members. The government lifted sanctions and stopped court actions against First Nations communities that weren’t complying with the transparency act.

Where this goes is anyone’s guess, but let’s hope the Liberals (and the NDP) do not fall back into their pattern of supporting chiefs against their members.

Some First Nation leaders are no doubt pleased that the Liberals are back at the helm. They are likely delighted at the prospect of a resurrection of the failed billion-dollar Kelowna Accord and Aboriginal education dollars being provided without meaningful education reform legislation.

Some of these leaders are very good at dividing their own people against much-needed reforms by wrapping themselves in the mantle of self-government rhetoric and opposition to “colonialism.”

Bu when band expenses were revealed, those same leaders faced criticism. Band members reacted in surprise and outrage when they learned of instances of exorbitant salaries going to their leaders.

Self-government is great, but not when it is used as a smokescreen. Fighting against the “colonial powers” can often be a convenient distraction from problems of internal governance on reserves.

This is not to argue that the interests of First Nation leaders and grassroots never align (they are both interested in missing and murdered indigenous women, land claims, and addressing the residential schools legacy, for instance).

But in some significant ways they often do not align, especially when internal governance is concerned.

Like any politicians, First Nation leaders don’t want to lose power. Gordon Gibson, policy analyst and author of [popup url=”” height=”800″ width=”800″ scrollbars=”0″]A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy[/popup], has noted that reserves have “small governments with large powers” that may intimidate and control members. Like any government, they also do not want to air their dirty laundry.

But airing that laundry is often the best way to confront problems.

In 2012, I was author of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy’s [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]Aboriginal Governance Index[/popup] report, which involved questions about chief and councillor salaries. We polled more than 3,000 First Nations members on all three Prairie provinces. Not surprisingly, almost 80 percent of respondents said they think reserve residents should “definitely” be able to learn how much money their leaders make. But just over 35 percent of respondents said that this information is “definitely” available to everyone on the reserve.

The poll results are now a few years old, but the sentiments expressed are likely very much the same now. If they need to be certain of that, the Liberals should conduct their own polling and consultation about the need for financial transparency.

It’s time the Liberals, and all federal parties, adopted a grassroots First Nations agenda that includes wide discussion with band members about the quality of their governance and services. They should not just be consulting band chiefs and First Nation organizations.

A former Liberal government under Paul Martin made the mistake of listening too much to the chiefs alone, to the detriment of First Nations communities. When the Chretien Liberals introduced the far-reaching First Nations Governance Act, a bill promising effective band electoral and financial reform, the chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) balked at the bill. When Martin took the helm, he killed the bill — despite an EKOS poll that revealed that a slim majority of band members supported the bill.

When the Conservatives later tried to introduce legislation to repeal an exemption preventing First Nations from accessing the Canadian Human Rights Act against their own band governments, the opposition parties, after sensing furious opposition from the AFN, used their committee power to kill the bill. The government eventually passed a watered-down version of the bill, but continued to encounter opposition intransigence along the way.

If the Liberals truly want to respect the indigenous community, they should ensure grassroots people are included intimately in this new nation-to-nation relationship.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst who focuses on Aboriginal policy, property rights, and water market issues.

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