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A child asks his grandfather for money while playing on the Wasagamack First Nation reserve in Manitoba in 2009. (Patrick White/The Globe and Mail)
A child asks his grandfather for money while playing on the Wasagamack First Nation reserve in Manitoba in 2009. (Patrick White/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Editorial: First Take

Accountability, not lack of money, is the real problem on federal reserves Add to ...

A new report that says half of all status First Nations children in Canada live in poverty paints a dire picture, but should also be a source of optimism. In a refreshing break from the usual handwringing, the report points out that injecting more money into First Nations reserves won’t accomplish a thing until what it accurately describes as a “dysfunctional accountability system” is fixed.

It is not news in Canada any more that, as the report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Save the Children says, “Indigenous children trail the rest of Canada’s children on practically every measure of well-being: family income, educational attainment, poor water quality, infant mortality, health, suicide, crowding and homelessness.” It is newsworthy, though, that income data from the 2006 census reportedly reveal that 50 per cent of status First Nations children live below the poverty line.

The report argues that an increase in the annual transfers Ottawa sends to status reserves could help improve conditions, which is perhaps not surprising coming from the left-leaning CCPA. What is eye-catching is the report’s blunt language that says more money won’t actually fix anything until both the federal government bureaucrats who send it and the band leaders who receive it are held accountable for the outcomes of their decisions.

The report points out that the bureaucrats and politicians who set policy under the Indian Act are disconnected from the remote reserves they are managing. As well, “First Nations governments have limited accountability,” the report says. It adds: “Reporting goes from First Nations governments to the federal government, leaving the citizens out of the accountability relationship. Limited information on results is collected, meaning that performance measurement and evaluation cannot be done effectively, which makes improvements difficult to identify and implement.”

The poverty on some federal reserves is appalling. But the problem has not been a lack of money. As the report says, what monies are already being spent are filtered through a system whose accountability structure can only generously be called “dysfunctional.” A more apt word is “non-existent.” Until that is fixed, First Nations governments and Ottawa will continue to place children at risk through their inaction.

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