Research suggests some First Nations need more flexibility

Let’s say that you are the chief of one of the 617 First Nation communities across Canada. Let’s also say that the band leadership in your community has been stable for many years; you meet your obligations to the federal government for spending, reporting and accounting required by your financial agreements, your audited financial statements are in order, you are committed to improving outcomes for your community, and you believe in being accountable to your community and have put in place measures to do so. If this was your community, you should expect that the federal government would provide you with predictable long-term funding, the authority to tailor programs to meet specific needs of your community, and a lot less oversight, control and upward reporting.

But this isn’t what Carol Miller and I discovered last year through our graduate research project.

Carol and I carried out an evaluation of a five-year funding agreement between Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg (KZA) and Aboriginal Affairs on behalf of Chief Gilbert Whiteduck. Chief Whiteduck wanted a third-party perspective on how the funding agreement with Aboriginal Affairs was working, in practice, for KZA and its effectiveness in supporting the delivery of programs that met the needs of his community, which is about 90-minutes north of Carleton University, near Maniwaki, Que. Aboriginal Affairs has a mandate with respect to First Nations that arises from the 1982 Constitution Act, treaties, statutes, negotiated agreements and multiple legal decisions and is responsible for funding core programs, such as elementary and secondary education, social programs and economic development for First Nations living on reserves.

We found that KZA is well known to Aboriginal Affairs as a well-managed community which is low-risk according to the department’s own risk assessment tool that measures risk in four areas – governance, planning, financial management and program management. We also found that their funding agreement fell far short of what they should reasonably expect from this type of agreement, which for a low-risk, well-managed First Nations community should provide predictable, long-term funding to allow effective planning, authority and flexibility to design and tailor programs to respond to community needs, flexibility to apply funds and reallocate surpluses to priorities and significantly less upward reporting which, in government circles, is referred to as “reduced reporting burden,” something they have been trying to address for many years without success. Aboriginal Affairs states publicly that these funding agreements define minimum standards for a local accountability framework in order to transfer increased authority to First Nations over program design and delivery and the management of funds. First Nations may redesign programs to meet specific community needs, subject to maintaining minimum delivery standards, and may reallocate funds between program areas.

Although not really a surprise, we found that KZA is unfortunately subject to the risk adverse and hyper-accountability culture of the current government despite consistently meeting and exceeding government requirements. What this means to Chief Whiteduck and the KZA program directors is that they must comply with the government’s excessive and over-controlling requirements that don’t support good management or improve program outcomes. The amount of time and energy spent by KZA officials responding to nonsensical requirements could, of course, be better spent delivering programs. According to one of the KZA officials that we interviewed: “The message that the government puts out is that the agreements allow for real change, allow First Nations to chart their own destinies, to have some control over what is happening on the ground. When you get into the nitty, gritty details of the agreement, this is not the case. You can’t carry a surplus, they don’t want to see a deficit, they don’t want us to move away from program objectives.”

Our evaluation concluded that Aboriginal Affairs has moved to a centralized and controlling approach that has led to less flexibility and more controls that are disproportionate to KZA’s capacities. The individuals that I interviewed from KZA were resourceful, well-educated and dedicated people who have, nonetheless, been able to exert some control despite the terms and conditions of their funding agreement. KZA is a prime example of a First Nations community which should be rewarded with more flexibility – not less.

Anne Lipman is a graduate student in the School of Public Policy and Administration. She worked with Carol Miller on this research.

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