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The day before I drove here along snow-drifted roads in the bright white emptiness that is northeastern Saskatchewan in February, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy released its second Aboriginal Governance Index.

It is an innovative ranking of reserves in Saskatchewan and Manitoba that makes the bold link between good governance and prosperity, and in the section on this province, the centre's aboriginal policy fellow, Don Sandberg, bemoaned the lousy signage and dryly remarked, "One of the major problems in Saskatchewan was finding many of the reserves."

I was oddly consoled by the fact that Mr. Sandberg, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation who has lived on reserves in two provinces, had trouble making his way around Saskatchewan.

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Finding Yellow Quill wasn't so much the problem - although coming from Kelvington, the nearest big town, there's no sign at the turnoff - getting around the reserve was.

The only real landmark, certainly the only one regularly referred to by the locals, is the reserve's lone four-way stop sign. "You know the four-way?" people would ask as I begged for directions. "No," I'd say. "Well, when you get to the four-way," they would invariably say in that slow way of speaking made familiar by the Coen brothers' movie Fargo, and add, as though a dopey Torontonian would ever know such a thing, "go north."

Yellow Quill, since two little girls froze to death here about two weeks ago, is briefly suffering its time as the most notorious reserve in Canada. People are weary of reporters, but still so innately polite they can't quite bring themselves to be rude.

But months before one-year-old Santana and three-year-old Kaydance were found dead in snowbanks, apparently having slipped unnoticed from the arms of their drunken young father as he stumbled out of his house and into a frigid and unforgiving night, Mr. Sandberg was travelling to Saskatchewan reserves for the first time, handing out the questionnaires that build reserve profiles and doing the field work that could have predicted, if not precisely the tragedy which unfolded here, at least accurately described the ground that was so ripe for something like it to happen.

Of the province's 61 reserves where band councils co-operated with the surveys and residents were interviewed, Yellow Quill ranked 54th over all using six broad measures of good governance - fairness of band elections, band management, human rights (such as band council resolutions that can force residents to leave), transparency of the band council, services such as health and education, and economic development.

The reserve is one of a dozen in Saskatchewan under what's called "third-party management," in Yellow Quill's case by a Regina-based private company called New Horizon, which took over money management about seven years ago.

Third-party management allows federal funds - for Yellow Quill, an operating budget of about $6-million a year from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, about $850,000 of that for social assistance and special needs - to keep flowing to residents, and is considered the measure of last resort.

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The roots of the trouble were some band financial ventures that didn't go as planned, the results a large bank debt and suppliers owed money. Third-party management protects the Ottawa funds from creditors.

Six-million dollars a year sounds like a fair chunk of change, given that it is destined for a reserve with only about 600 to 800 band members, but there's little sign of affluence on this land.

The houses - simple, small, plain and often overcrowded - are built mostly off the main road that runs through Yellow Quill.

There's a newish-looking school where about 250 youngsters attend kindergarten to Grade 12, another building housing the health clinic and the Indian Child and Family Services office, a general store and the band office.

That, in my wandering and directionless tour yesterday, appears to be pretty much it in the way of infrastructure.

There is little work in the area - no natural resource sector, and agriculture is suffering, with the reserve and environs inundated with floods in recent years, the creek that usually is six feet wide last year swelling to more than two kilometres across. Unemployment is high.

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The little Pauchay girls were buried two weekends ago. Their young parents, Tracey Jimmy and Christopher Pauchay, are reportedly off the reserve getting counselling.

As Lawrence Chukwu, a Nigerian-born priest and social worker who works for child and family services, said yesterday, the rest of the community is "getting to the point where they agree to accept the fact that this happened. The first reaction is, how can it be? But it really happened. Those children are not among us now."

Mr. Chukwu was out of the country on vacation when the little girls died, but he said that his co-worker, a native woman, had a meeting of residents to discuss how "we can make sure things like that don't happen again, and ways to take better care of children."

Employed at Yellow Quill only a year -he sought the job because "Canada has been wonderful for me, and I made up my mind to make some contribution, to give something back" - he said that while he has found people accepting and welcoming, "I think they need a lot of help, a big lot of help."

There are no recreational facilities on the reserve, although about half the population is under the age of 20, and only very limited health facilities.

But as Don Sandberg wrote in a prescient reflection on his Saskatchewan survey work: "We must show the ordinary band member that not all is given and that hard work is required - and that in times of need, we must volunteer, such as when our young are in crisis.

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"It is a sad moment," he said, "when the phones go unanswered at a time of crisis simply because the funding from Ottawa has run out."

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