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Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault has recently proposed new legislation intended to improve Indian band governance by means of better audits, better electoral rules and access to the Charter.

It's my contention that the problems of status Indian governance today are not simply problems of corruption or poor administration at the reserve level among unaccountable band councils. These people are agents of a system that keeps ordinary Indians passive. Not having to be accountable to their people is the reward that chiefs and band councillors get for complying with the system.

The real problems spring from the powerlessness and dependency of individual Indians. There can be no democracy, no stable governance within Indian communities, until there is real power in the hands of individual Indians.

In effect, the Indians of Canada are living under a particularly destructive form of modern colonialism whose worst effects date back about three decades to when Jean Chrétien was Canada's Indian Affairs Minister.

"My time in Indian Affairs coincided with a period of expansion, and that helped my reputation and my popularity among bureaucrats and in the country. In a period of expansion ministers are judged by how much money they can spend and how well they extract money from the system for their projects," he once said. "Those were the glory days."

But those "glory days" have given rise to vast layers of consultants, officials and administrators who soak up a significant percentage of the money filtering through the system with the compliance of the chiefs and councils. Individual Indians remain poor and powerless.

Before the "glory days," Indians were already poor. But they were spared the perverse effects of increasing and unaccountable money flowing from Ottawa. Back in 1969, Indian Affairs' annual budget was a mere $232-million with an additional $30-million for health services. This served 230,000 status Indians, most of whom lived on-reserve. By 1999, the Indian Affairs budget had swollen to $6.3-billion, for a population of 680,000, about half of whom live off-reserve. So much money is being spent -- yet many of the social problems (alcoholism, family breakdown, poverty, unemployment and high suicide rates) that afflicted Indians three decades ago are worse today. Only radical reform can change things for the better.

Canadians who have never been on reserves do not understand how this money, trickling from the top down, distorts normal administration. People use money to stay in power -- it's human nature. On reserves, chiefs, their councils and allies control everything from who gets jobs to who gets home repairs.

When Jean Chrétien tabled his White Paper in June of 1969 calling for the repeal of the Indian Act, the abolition of the department and the end of differences in the status of Indians from other Canadians, Indian leaders were outraged because they hadn't been consulted. Articulate Indian leaders, such as Harold Cardinal (who wrote the "Red Paper") called on Ottawa to vastly increase economic resources and to modernize the interpretation of the treaties -- as the courts had already done with so-called "medicine-chest" laws (which morphed into full medical services for status Indians).

One of the wisest of the 19th-century plains Indian leaders was Big Bear. He resisted "taking treaty" until the 1880s. He foresaw the danger for his people: Treaties would mean loss of freedom leading to soul-destroying humiliation.

Before settlers came to the Prairies, Indian families had been free to take their lodge and move to another band if the leader was not to their liking. Big Bear was a popular leader. At the height of his leadership, he counted 400 lodges in his band. But in the last year before treaty, this had dropped to 40 lodges. At present, ordinary Indians have no equivalent means to express their dissatisfaction with what is going on -- other than leaving Indian society.

Big Bear fought for a meaningful annual payment of "treaty money" -- payable to all individual Indians. Individual treaty money is the only treaty benefit that has, over the past 30 years, not been modernized. It was $5 annually in 1871; it remains $5 today.

The most meaningful reform that Mr. Chrétien could introduce, something that would be a worthy legacy for his long career in Canadian politics, would be to update Big Bear's treaty money and make it, once again, meaningful and empowering to individual Indians. In the 19th century, $5 could buy several acres of farm land. If we think in terms of today's land prices, that means an annual payment of $5,000 per Indian, installments paid monthly.

This would free Indian people. Updated treaty money will not cure all ills facing Indians. We need to think hard about how to improve education and employment among Indians who move to cities, for example. And working out the details of any updated treaty money program would be complex.

But the principle is simple: Paying significant treaty money directly to individual Indians empowers individual Indians. And it honours Canada's obligations under treaties.

To maintain spending levels, band councils would need the consent of their electorate to collect some of this treaty money as taxes. He who pays the piper calls the tune. No democracy can or has existed without taxation, and without the citizen having the incentive and feeling the right and obligation to supervise the spending of taxes by his representatives. Treaty money for every man, woman and child would take up less than 50 per cent of current expenditure for Indians, and because of various savings would be revenue-neutral.

Over the years, many people have flung themselves against the fortress that is the present Indian Affairs system, only to fall away, bloody and bruised -- sometimes quite literally -- without changing anything. Those who make the strongest case for change are Indian women.

In general, Indian women have survived better in the present system than have men. Their role as mothers, spouses and homekeepers has not weakened in the same fashion as has the role of men; men used to be providers and protectors for their families but can no longer carry out those responsibilities because they have been taken over by the system.

In victory or defeat, Indian women have become stronger, and it is from their strength that I see much of the energy that will drive change.

I believe that no one is to blame for the present situation. It is the inevitable result of the Indian Act, history and human nature. Jean Allard served as a Manitoba MLA in Ed Schreyer's government between 1969 and 1973. He lives in Winnipeg, and is author of Big Bear's Treaty: The Road to Freedom. A major excerpt appeared in the journal Inroads.