A few weeks ago in my home community of Peguis First Nation Manitoba, I got up to speak at a public meeting that was attended by Premier Gary Doer and the Minister of Northern Affairs. There were about 250 band members present. Concerned citizens of Peguis had met the previous day and it was decided I would present their concerns to the Premier.
I had planned to make my intervention after the opening speech by the chief. The chief could have not laid a better foundation for my intervention as he remonstrated the provincial delegation for the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
I was denied permission to use the microphone. I turned and faced the audience and stated “I, too, have a message for the premier.”
As I went to hand the premier the letter, a security guard took hold of my shoulder and told me to sit down. I continued and four security guards grabbed me, wrestled me to the floor and tossed me out of the hall.
I am told the spectacle clearly shook the premier and his entourage. These provincial officials later disavowed my identity and replied to media inquiries that “a man” was removed from the room.
The incident shocked many of the Peguis residents present. Clearly what they saw was a new level of violence perpetrated on individuals who desire to voice their concerns in public meetings in our community. Previously such persons could expect to be shouted at and jeered by the chief’s supporters – with the tacit if not express approval and encouragement of whoever was chairing the meeting, usually the chief himself. A favourite tactic was public denunciation by the chief in a packed hall. Singling out an individual in the audience the chief would shout, “And you, why are you opposing me when I gave you a house?”
Or, “Why the hell doesn’t he move somewhere else if he doesn’t like it here?”
This was not physical violence. But it was violence nonetheless. But now the incident last week has signaled to the people of Peguis that if you persist in questioning the Chief Louis Stevenson and his council, the violence could get physical. The message is “You just better think twice before you start asking prying questions about band affairs.”
Is this what’s in store for First Nation citizens in other communities in Canada? And what is it that the Concerned Citizens of Peguis are asking that so riles our chief? Are we making unreasonable demands of our council which, if acceded to, will harm our community in some way?
Allow me to summarize the key issues which the Concerned Citizens of Peguis have identified:
a. The practice of intimidating citizens through public denunciations or verbal assaults in our meeting halls when they try to voice their concerns must stop.
b. Our council refuses to disclose information to citizens about community funding agreements, audits and public resources. This is in contravention of its funding agreement with the Department of Indian Affairs to disclose information to citizens and to develop an accountability system with their approval, not to mention a breach of their duty to keep our community informed about the status of its programs and finances. The latter duty, we believe, is a traditional right First Nations citizens should expect of their governments.
c. The council misrepresents the will of the community to external authorities. For example an Band Council Resolution was -sent to the Interlake Tribal Council purporting to evince a community decision to withdraw from that organization without a community meeting ever being held to ratify such a decision, such ratification being required by the Tribal Council constitution. That the council later withdrew this BCR does not undo the subversion of the will of Peguis citizens.
d. Unilateral spending decisions are made which are of questionable merit such as giving school children extravagant gifts at a time of high unemployment and shortages.
e. Nepotism and favouritism in the allocation of services and opportunities.
What we are asking for in essence is a more accountable and responsible government. We believe the following statement of principles provides a reasonable starting point for the kinds of changes we are seeking.
The Concerned Citizens of Peguis
Statement of Principles Respecting the Peoples Rights in Governance
1. The people must be free to participate in assemblies and meetings and to do so without fear of intimidation from other citizens and officials. There is a positive duty on the part of those responsible for the control of meetings and assemblies to ensure the right to speak is safeguarded and respected. No unruly behaviour which threatens an individual’s right to speak shall be permitted.
2. The people must be allowed an opportunity to participate in the decision making processes of their community. This means the people will be able to attend council meetings to observe, speak or otherwise participate.
3. The people must be allowed reasonable access to information. This means the right to examine key public documents such as funding agreements, audits, policies, guidelines, laws and constitutions. There will be a public place in our government office where this information will be stored and where people may go to examine them during regular business hours.
4. The people will have a right to fair and reasonable access to community resources including services, programs and opportunities pursuant to appropriate policies and guidelines.
5. The people have a right to a periodic accounting of their community resources by their leaders. This must include as a minimum an accounting of financial, human and other resources at least once a year. In addition Council will provide a public accounting of major land and financial issues as they occur.
We are all too aware the problems we’ve described are occurring in many other communities across Canada and that perhaps our principles may be appropriate for consideration by those communities. Perhaps the statement should be considered and adopted by all First Nations communities as a minimum guarantee of citizens freedoms and rights.
The responsibilities and powers of First Nations governments are increasing in scope and complexity each year. First Nation citizens, senior governments, and the Canadian public expect our governments to live up to and enforce standards of conduct and behaviour that are consistent with those enjoyed by open and free societies.
Many First Nations are involved in self-government negotiations premised on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and accountable and responsible government. It would surely aid our cause and those negotiations to adopt basic principles to which our governments would adhere and respect.
The proposal to set up an ombudsman’s office to investigate allegations of abuse in our communities is helpful but inadequate. We believe the fundamental problem of governance is the reliance on colonial models and authorities as a foundation of governance in our communities. An ombudsman is merely a variant of this and, although it has merits, it is not the whole solution. We believe rather than searching for answers from external authorities and agencies, the answers lie inside us, the people and the responsible leaders in our community.
We believe, by far, the majority of our leaders are caring and honest individuals whose good works and conduct is besmirched by the few who are irresponsible. Are those leaders going to remain silent and allow a few to compromise their work?
The time has come for us to take this problem and deal with it, in our way and with our own hands. We can do this without bothering our white brothers and sisters with constitutional amendments or legislative change. A good way to start this is for our leaders to call a meeting of their community and pass a resolution to adopt this statement of principles or a version of it. Let us respect our traditions. Let us ensure that the control of our governments remains where it belongs, in the hands of our people.
James Wastasecoot is a member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. He is a Cree who publishes The Fisher Post, The First Perspective and the Drum (Manitoba) newspapers.