I have written about ethics throughout the years and it’s time to do so once again. It certainly isn’t new: this issue was a hot one way back in 1990 at that year’s Annual General Assembly. That’s when a resolution to establish a code of ethics to govern potential conflicts of interest for elected officials passed unanimously. The mandate for the Grand Chief, as for representatives from each band council and legal staff, was to draft ethics guidelines within six months for adoption as a by-law at all band councils. The guidelines were to be applied to all Cree entities as well.

Twenty-two years after this 12-page by-law was drafted, however, not a single Cree band council in Eeyou Istchee has implemented this important set of ethical standards. These guidelines included strict rules to prevent conflicts of interest. Officials would have been required to avoid taking part in decisions from which they or their business associates could benefit, for instance, in winning a contract or obtaining any form of payment. These rules likewise prohibited trading favours in exchange for contracts, misappropriation and embezzlement of funds. Entities would have been barred from giving loans to officers or employees except for travel allowances or salary advances. Officials would have had to avoid any activity that didn’t leave them enough time to do their jobs.

The draft also included anti-discrimination guidelines concerning sex, marital status, age, social status, religion or political orientation. It was produced in a way that reflected the Cree way of life and society and integrated our cultural values and traditions.

With the relatively small population of our Nation (less than 20,000 members), it is not unusual for a person to wear more than one hat, with responsibilities and interests in both the political and business spheres. Therein lies the problem: conflicting positions are a part of life. In one specific case I know of, a band council chief was approached by a band member over a disagreement the member had with an entity in the community, only to be informed that the chief also had a seat on the board of this business. How could this member ever hope for an impartial resolution of his issue from his political representative?

At the Nation we often hear stories of politicians or appointed officials who have a say over contracts that their own companies are bidding on, or who decide on courses of action that they would personally benefit from in the long run. It’s not surprising that this can happen. Elected or appointed positions allow one to network with people in government and business. The people in these positions have much greater access to and information about economic opportunities (partnerships, contracts, grants, loans and so on) than the average band member. These positions also frequently provide higher salaries than what is earned by the average person trying to make ends meet. So they have the money, knowledge and connections to exploit opportunities that are out of reach for the people they are supposed to serve, represent and support.

Don’t get me wrong: we need the entrepreneurial spirit of people who recognize business opportunities. The Cree Nation needs to build a strong economic base for now and the future. The only problem is that without ethics guidelines adopted as by-laws there are no rules beyond personal convictions. The old saying that power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely – is especially relevant here. With no rule of law or common rules for our political and business elites, it’s too easy to take advantage of one’s position of responsibility. In the end, we have to ask how well our Nation can really develop without clear ethical guidelines that are the same for everyone… and whether we really want to be part of the situation that results when these rules are not implemented.