Oct 6/97: Native leaders face serious questioning

NATIVE LEADERS FACE SERIOUS QUESTIONING

Vancouver Province
Monday, October 6, 1997, Page A12
Canadian Press

[Please note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only. -- S.I.S.I.S.]

Edmonton - Aboriginal people on reserves are starting to demand more accountability from their band leaders. Many reserve natives are tired of what they see as corruption and misuse of funds while they live in poverty. In Alberta, two bands and a Metis settlement are embroiled in messy fights over finances. A third band is being investigated by outside authorities.

Discontent is surfacing because natives are becoming more educated and empowered, says Burt Northwest, a Samson Cree who is leading a fight against his band council. "The grassroots people are starting to see what's going on," he says. In August, he and a group of dissidents occupied the Samson band office to demand the resignation of the chief and council. Some natives on the neighboring Ermineskin reserve also moved in on their band office.

Both sets of protesters want to know why so many on the two reserves are poor even though both bands are rich from oil royalties. Northwest says the vast majority of Samson members are on welfare. "These governments have been in place for so long, have been conditioned to basically run on a nepotism system. This nepotism has been the downfall of all tribal governments," Northwest says. The other problem is lack of public records. Northwest says members don't know enough about where money is going.

In southern Alberta, controversy has surrounded the Stoney band since a provincial judge last June called for a Crown investigation into the community's affairs.

"The system that's on the reserve is very wicked," Roy Littlechief, former chief of the Siksika Nation, said at the time. "It's a hidden Mafia we live under." The federal Indian Affairs Department eventually ordered an independent forensic audit of the band, which has a $5 million deficit for 1996-97 even though it received $50 million from Ottawa, plus resource royalties. Two thirds of the band's 3,300 members live on welfare. Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says all band finances are closely watched and it's unfair to generalize.

"I don't know where this notion of corruption comes in," says Fontaine. "There have been a number of allegations made. Let's wait and see this run its course," he says about the Stoney situation. "If there is indeed corruption, those people who have committed criminal acts, they should be held accountable. But we shouldn't be tarred with the same brush." Debora Lockyear, editor of Windspeaker, the national aboriginal newspaper, calls the unrest part of a move towards self-government:"I think what's happening is a very important transition." The Indian Act doesn't have the checks and balances of other levels of government, Lockyear says.

"What happens on reserves is people get elected and they don't know, and they don't know, and they haven't been made fully aware of, what their responsibilities are.


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