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What does the future hold for Canada's First Nations? Add to ...

Comment From Alex Williams: Tom can you clarify how would you start over?

Tom Flanagan: Alex, I don't think we can start over. My comment was meant to be counterfactual.

Frances Abele: Treaties establish an agreement between the original sovereign powers in North America and the Crown of the newcomers. They create a framework for peaceful co-existence --just as the Constitution Act 1982 does. I prefer to live in a country that respects treaties (and contracts, for that matter).

Comment From Brett: I used to live very near the border of a first nations community in North Western Ontario and the reserve compared to the adjacent city was very impoverished. From watching the news releases about spendings and governance of this reserve it seems from point of view (outside looking in) that it is bad governing in this reserve that is causing this to happen. Do you think there is a better way to give funds to reserves to help them help themselves? Should we put a foot in and help the management of this funds they get to help rid this? Or is this a live and let live situation?

Tom Flanagan: Brett, I think the federal government can do a few things that would be beneficial. One would be an openness requirement for the FN government to publish its accounts, including remuneration of leaders. Another would be allowing the FN to own its land, and to make its own decisions about development. If the band is near a city, there must be some revenue potential there

Frances Abele: Thanks for this comment, Brett. The Indian Act is the root of many problems in reserve governance, for three reasons at least. (1) it concentrates economic and political power in the hands of a few leaders (2) lines of responsibility tend to run out --to the DIAND and the Minister of Indian Affairs, by law and in practice, and (3) for many years, by law again, all Bands had to have elections every two years. These provisions have created a horrible and undemocratic base on many reserves, from which people are trying to work their way out. There are now ways to opt our of the worse of these arrangements, and there is also the grassroots process that I mentioned earlier. This will happen one First Nation community at a time, but there is considerable sharing of experience now too.

Tom Flanagan: Yes, current opt-outs are already significant (e.g., First Nations Land Management Act), and I believe we can make them even better.

Frances Abele: I should add that in fact, the federal department of Indian Affairs audits First Nations governments and is empowered to "step in" when this is indicated.

Comment From Peter: The focus on treaties does little to enhance First Nations economic development activity. Allowing First Nations the freedom to negotiate with governments either at the Provincial or Municipal level to pursue business opportunities may be a better approach. Federal government does little to help the First Nations in this regard.

Tom Flanagan: I agree with you, Peter. That's why I think in the long run it will be better for FNs to own their lands and negotiate their own economic deals with their neighbours.

Frances Abele: Peter, it is open to First Nations, or their development corporations, to negoatiate with any parties they wish to, now. This occurs within the framework of the treaty relationship.

Comment From Peter: Successful governance means having a strong administration at the band level. Politicians need to set direction and allow their staff to administer programs and policies. Too often politicians try to be administrators to the detriment of their First Nation.

Frances Abele: I agree! And the separation of economic and political institutions is important as well.

Tom Flanagan: Very true, Peter. The Harvard Project in the United States has had a lot of useful things to say about how to depoliticize band governance. I think Fran and I are on the same wave length here.

Natalie Stechyson: We're about to run out of time. Dr. Flanagan, Dr. Abele - any final thoughts?

Frances Abele: I would like to thank the people who took the time to write in. It was an excellent conversation.

Tom Flanagan: I'm actually quite optimistic. I think a lot of First Nations are making good progress. But it's a long process.

Natalie Stechyson: Thank you for joining us today on globeandmail.com. That's all the time we have. Thank you to our guests, Dr. Tom Flanagan and Dr. Frances Abele. And thanks to everyone for contributing their comments and questions. Please join us tomorrow at noon EST for the next discussion in our series: electoral reform.

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