In November, the House of Commons passed Bill C-27, an act requiring chiefs and councillors to publicly disclose – among other things – their incomes from salaries and other sources. Defending that bill before the House Committee, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan justified its measures in the name of democracy. “Democracy,” he stated, "depends on citizens being able to call their elected officials to account to ensure they represent their community’s best interest."
The Minister’s statement invites us to reflect on the nature of accountability in a representative democracy. At its heart are elections: specifically, their provision to voting citizens of a regular opportunity to remove representatives they find wanting.
Perhaps more than any other feature of democratic government, elections define the relationship between an incumbent government and its citizens. That relationship is simple yet exacting. Citizens, as voters, discipline governments at election time. And incumbent governments, facing the prospect of losing a critical mass of votes, must govern with that crucial day of reckoning in mind.
Evidence of the constraining influence of voters on incumbent governments is constant. Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver expounded the principle in late November, offering a first sign of his government's potential retreat from an earlier endorsement of the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal. "If we don't get people on side,” he explained to a group of executives at the Canada Energy Summit, “we don't get the social licence – politics often follows opinion.” Or consider his recent assurance that the Conservative government would take public opinion into account in reviewing foreign take-over bids for Canadian owned energy companies. “This is a democracy,” he assured reporters: “the Government takes into account the opinions of Canadians.”
The minister’s statements may have prompted chagrin within a powerful sector in this country. But it also reminded who, ultimately, he and his Cabinet colleagues must please if they wish to retain power. To ignore the perceived wishes of a significant majority of voters is to flout the political equivalent of the law of gravity. And what sitting government would invite its own ruin?
But now let’s return to the accountability of First Nation band councils to their citizens. Does the same tether that binds elected officials to citizens elsewhere in the country exist for First Nation people? Posed at the community level, it turns out it does. First Nation citizens can remove their chiefs and councils, either through elections conducted under the Indian Act or through their own custom election codes.
But what about that other government whose laws, policies, programs and practices bear so much on the lives of First Nation citizens – the “senior government,” as Minister Duncan recently referred to the federal government when defending Bill C-27. Can First Nation voters hold their federal representatives to account at the ballot box?
Here, democratic accountability falters. Voting as a bloc, First Nation voters might decide a given federal constituency. But their comparatively small numbers ensure that they could never oust a sitting government at the federal level, no matter how dissatisfied. The defining relationship of a democracy simply does not hold between First Nation voters and the federal government. It didn’t at Confederation, when they had no vote. It didn’t when they gained the vote in 1962; and, as an effect of simple math, it still doesn’t today.
Some might state that this is simply how it goes. Minority groups will always need to resort to means beyond the electoral system to sway their governments. Certainly, First Nation people have used the gamut, largely through their regional and national advocacy organizations: international appeals to the Queen or the United Nations, outreach to the broader voting public, impassioned appearances before parliamentary committees, law suits, protests, blockades – and now, ominously, a hunger strike. The most potent levers in recent years have been successful assertions of Aboriginal and treaty rights following the Supreme Court’s articulation of a Crown duty to consult on major resource projects.
These alternatives have proven effective at times and some hold promise for the future. Yet they should not obscure the stubborn reality that the defining democratic means to hold an incumbent federal government to account is unavailable to First Nation voters. This reality, further, has a disproportionate impact on life in reserve communites. On reserves, the federal government does what provincial governments do elsewhere, but with a lot more discretionary power. Band councils may be responsible to administer federal services ranging from infrastructure to education, but the federal government retains the jurisdiction, program authorities and power over funding – including over how much, how and when it flows. And all this as only one of its many national priorities and portfolios.
When Parliament returns from Christmas break, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples will study Bill C-27. Whatever its merits or defects, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act does not begin to address this larger structural issue that is a key inhibitor to accountability on First Nation reserves. Nor, for that matter, would a fully modernized Indian Act address it – or any other act leaving authority over key decisions with a federal minister. Regardless of which party holds power at the federal level, the lack of federal accountability to First Nation voters remains a key impediment to the accountable governance of their communities.
So what's the strategy to ensure that elected officials represent the best interest of First Nation communities? In a reformed scenario, a basic requirement would seem to be this: that officials with ultimate authority for key decisions affecting First Nation communities account to constituents who bear the impacts of their decisions, rather than solely to the majority who do not.
Seen through an accountability lens, developing First Nation governments that answer directly to their constituents at a regional – perhaps even national – level remains as pressing an institutional need as ever.
NOTE: Articles in the series represent the views of their individual authors and not necessarily the collective views of Stratéjuste, its partners or associates.
Posts in the Series
Indigenous women to the barricades: a book review
Indigenous rights are human rights: a reminder from Argentina
On surfing and strawberry tea: how your spring break could promote reconciliation
The right guy at the right time: Gord Downie's contribution to reconciliation
Encore une Commission...
Munich, 1933: The good bureaucrat, Josef Hartinger
Addressing the language of the Aboriginal/settler relationship
From big to better data through indigenous data governance
Toast to those who showed courage in public life
Excellence is everywhere: Blueprint 2020 and the future of the public service
Time to investigate options for resource revenue sharing
Speaking of accountability: examining the relationship of First Nation voters to their governments
About the Author
Jodi Bruhn (PhD, Notre Dame) is a published policy researcher, author and facilitator who specializes in governance and indigenous/Crown relations. She is director of Stratéjuste Canada.