May 28, 2000
Few stereotypes are more intractable than that of the impoverished, alcoholic Native. You only have to walk through the Downtown Eastside or drive by a run-down reservation to see people living in Third World conditions, in what is ostensibly a First-World country.
The unspoken corollary to this stereotype is one that lays the plight of Natives at the feet of European colonizers. Consequently, governments are expected to dole out millions upon millions of dollars in housing, education and cash to Natives, and leave them to run their own affairs. After all, for the government to administer them would be condemned as paternalistic.
Problem is, if you want to destroy the first stereotype, you have to destroy the second.
As the Globe and Mail reported last week, the worst exploiters of Natives can be other Natives. In corruption that rivals Human Resources Development Canada for brazenness, the leadership of the Samson Cree band near Edmonton spent more than $142 million between March 1998 and March 1999.
The list of expenses read like a mobster’s ledger. For example:
$20.4 million—salaries and benefits
$8.1 million—bad debts
$8.1 million—professional fees
$4.6 million—committee fees
$2.5 million—off-reserve schooling
The story also described how the Lucky Dollar Foods grocery store was slush-fund central, with gifts to band relatives and friends averaging $200,000 per month.
In fiscal 1998–99, even though the band received $27 million from the federal government and $50 million from oil and gas sales, interest and other income, it withdrew $65 million from its trust funds to cover overspending.
The financial chicanery is criminal in itself, but the real crime is that the vast majority of 5,000-odd Samson Cree live in abject poverty. The $142 million would have amounted to nearly $28,000 for every man, woman and child on the reserve.
The Globe stories were newsworthy in that they detailed the latest abuses, but I remember reading about the Samson Cree years ago, and in fact the band’s financial disasters are well-known. Compared to the fusillade of criticism fired at the government and HRDC Minister Jane Stewart for not keeping track of disbursements and the dubious political nature of many of them, the tragedy of the Samson Cree has received virtually no publicity, until now that is.
Yet of the two, the Samson Cree mismanagement is infinitely worse. At HRDC all that was lost was money—you can always print more—but the financial corruption by the band leadership led to despair and in some cases the suicides of other Cree.
When I read stories like this I get angry at the injustice, and incensed at the blind indifference that allowed it to happen. The Globe story described how Elroy Strawberry-Rain, a dissident band member, lobbied for years for accountability, but neither the band nor the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs would listen. The department said its annual reports of the Samson Cree and other bands were “sufficient to guarantee accountability.”
I suspect the answer is more cynical—nobody wanted to know. So long as somebody could rationalize the figures everybody was happy. Nobody wants to be seen criticizing band leaders because of the PR nightmare that would ensue.
Can you imagine the rumpus if Revenue Canada auditors descended en masse onto the Samson Cree reserve? (Even worse, can you picture Revenue Canada as the good guy?!) The cries of “racism” and “paternalism” would light up radio talk shows and jam the letters pages of newspapers. The fact that the government would be acting in the best interests of the Natives would get drowned out.
The damage that European colonization did to Canada’s indigenous cultures cannot be undone or excused, but neither do the pious fictions of the noble Native and exploitative white man hold much water.
The cruel truth today is that Natives on reserves are more likely to be exploited and abused by their own people than by the government or any non-Native. It is patent nonsense to offer up the tired excuse that Europeans are once and forever responsible for the plight of the Natives, and that Natives cannot be held accountable for their actions.
It may in fact be in the best interests of Natives if their affairs were not managed by their own people, at least not entirely. Paternalism be damned—if the government is expected to give Native bands collectively $6.3 billion every year, it has a right to ensure that the money is spent properly.
Native poverty is a national disgrace, and abetting the problem by leaving Native welfare entirely in the hands of corrupt band leaders is financially and ethically irresponsible.
Joint administration of reserves would not only ensure accountability, it would also go along way to debunking Native and non-Native stereotypes.