De-brief with an Ex-Chief: First Nations Accountability Advocate Moves On (Pt. 1)
Last month, the Chief of one of Canada’s largest First Nations opted not to run again after serving just one term.
For 8 years, Marcel Balfour held political office with the Norway House Cree Nation (on-reserve population: 5,500), located about 850 km north of Winnipeg, MB. First voted in as Councillor in 2002, Balfour was elected Chief in 2006, one of the biggest milestones in a near-epic battle with most of his own band council over issues of accountability and transparency.
Clashing almost immediately upon his election in 2002 with certain members of Council over their actions (such as denying him access to financial records and keeping him out of meetings), Balfour’s troubles truly began in March 2004. That’s when he went to Federal Court to put an end to the anti-democratic machinations of a ‘sub-group’ of three Norway House Councillors, Fred Muskego, Eliza Clark and Langford Saunders .
The very next day, then-Chief Ron Evans (who left in 2005 to head the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and a majority of Council had Balfour locked out of the Chief and Council building, including his own office. They also blocked his pay for a month, after which they cut Balfour back to a mere $189 every two weeks (or $5,000 a year, a far cry from the usual $60,000 Councillors received). Adding insult to injury, they stripped him of his health portfolio duties and responsibilities, canceled his travel budget, forcibly seized his computer, even attempted to evict him from his band-provided home.
But Balfour fought back. In Feb. 2006, thanks in part to the assistance of lawyers Andrew Orkin and Jackie Esmonde, the embattled politician won a total of three cases in Federal Court against the Norway House Band Council. (He would go on to win yet another case, essentially for costs, two months later.)
In the first case, Justice Pierre Blais stated that the Chief and Councillors’ conduct (with one notable exception, then-Councillor Eric Apetagon) offered a “clear indication of influence peddling and blackmail,” and ordered that Norway House compensate Balfour for his lost pay and expenses, with all his original rights and responsibilities as Councillor re-instated.
In the next two cases, Balfour won his fight against the denial of access to financial information and records, and the denial of access to Council meetings and their records; he also fought and had overturned Council’s unlawful decision to not call a by-election immediately after Evans resigned as Chief (letting Evans unilaterally appoint an acting Chief instead).
On Mar. 16, 2006 (exactly one month after Blais’ decision), in a tightly-contested election, Balfour won the office of Chief by just 40 votes. He immediately inherited a $70 million debt.
Late last month, on a sunny Spring afternoon in Winnipeg, I sat down with the freshly ‘retired’ politician over brunch at Stella’s on Broadway. I wanted to hear his thoughts about his fight for better governance in Indian country, what he’s learned from it, and what lessons it may hold for First Nations across Canada. The following is an edited transcript of part one of that conversation.
[Full disclosure: A personal friend of mine, Marcel Balfour is also a business partner. Together, we own the INDIGENA Creative Group, publisher of mediaINDIGENA.]
Why are you not running for Chief again?
First and foremost, I looked at what I promised people I would do and I believed that I fulfilled my mandate: in terms of making sure that things that happened to me as a [band] councillor, wouldn’t happen again; I tried to find out where our money went; and, that we be fair. And as Chief, I believe I’ve done that. We changed our election law, we’ve got new individuals in as Council; the previous ones who were doing things that were bad in the community and against me are no longer in office.
But in a larger context, I also weighed that with what I’ve been going through for the last 8 years. And, from a personal perspective, how I feel, I’m really proud to have been an elected official in Norway House, but it’s really cost me a lot personally and health-wise. And so, weighing all that, I decided that it’s best to try and pursue other opportunities at this time.
What did you think of being a Chief before you became one, and how did that change as a result of actually getting in there and doing the work?
I guess the greatest thing that I assumed is that, you know, you say that you want to get elected, and you want to do certain things — to actually get them done are two different things because of the really, really big demands placed on the Chief. Also, councils, too. There’s a lot and lot of demands: from [those] very directly affecting people’s lives, to other issues. And you have to prioritize, and sometimes you can’t get to everything. Being a social worker, a lawyer, a politician, a policy analyst, and everything else under the sun, as Chief is really hard to be able to balance. The time management is really key, surrounding yourself with people who understand the issues, and can support you, is absolutely key. Having that capacity to even do that from a First Nations perspective is really hard. I’m glad that I surrounded myself with good people, but I can understand the challenges for other communities as well, where you just potentially don’t have the ability to be able to do that.
What are the things you liked best about the position?
A lot of the people that I met, professional relationships that were developed, and the friendships created. I think as well that the realization that, no matter what you can say from a political perspective, that we are actually a Cree nation that’s fairly strong, and we do have a good sense of community in Norway House. That became much more clear to me as Chief, in that role. And even if everything I wanted to get done didn’t get done … not a lot of people get to [be in my] position, so I am really humbled and proud that I was able to try to make a little a bit of a difference in Norway House.
What were the things you liked least?
The thing I liked least was saying ‘no.’ And it’s really hard to be able to do that when people expect certain things of leadership, and you can’t get it done for one reason or another. Usually the reason is financial; usually the reason is, policy doesn’t allow you to do it.
The other thing I guess I didn’t like is to see how Indian and Northern Affairs [INAC] and others sort of treat First Nations, even though we’re right. It’s very frustrating.
What do you mean?
Well, just the reality in terms of INAC policy, and INAC underfunding, and the position that we have. When we do reports, they suddenly go missing at the office in the region. When we put our position forward, we’re correct in terms of policy, and yet they’re slow to respond. The realities with respect to the problems with the funding cap.
[Editor’s note: Assembly of First Nations (AFN) research indicates that, since 1996, the federal government has capped funding increases for core programs and services on-reserve (e.g., education, child & family services, income assistance) at 2% a year. But, says the AFN, that only keeps up with inflation (running at 2% a year since 1996): it does not factor in the average First Nations population growth rate of 2.5% a year since 1996. As we discuss in a related post, the net effect is a cumulative reduction in First Nations’ capacity to meet the needs of their growing populations.]
But of course, the Manitoba region [of INAC] knows that, and Indian Affairs as a whole knows that. It’s just totally conflictual. It’s really challenging to sit there and listen to these people as an elected official and try to be diplomatic but also put your people’s interests first.
Based on what you’ve learned over your political career, what stands between First Nations’ current, more or less dependent status on Indian Affairs and becoming more self-reliant and self-determining?
We’ve got a lot of good thinkers across the country who have contributed to the idea of self-determination, self-government. We’ve had some failed attempts at that, such as the Framework Agreement Initiative.
[Back in 1994, this Initiative was framed as a first step towards handing control over INAC programs and services to First Nations in Manitoba. But 12 years and tens of millions of dollars later, this so-called departmental ‘dismantling’ was terminated. Its activities are part of an audit currently underway into the affairs of INAC’s Manitoba office.]
And we got some decisions that have gone forward at Chiefs’ forums, but haven’t gotten to the point of where they can or should be implemented. One of the smaller problems to my mind is that INAC doesn’t want to go there (but is willing to entertain some discussions), but I think the largest problem is the capacities within the First Nations themselves.
What does that mean?
We’re not ready for self-government, for self-determination.
You’re prepared to say that?
Nobody says it.
Because that’s probably going to be easily misinterpreted…
Yes, I know!
…can you be very specific about what that means, ‘They’re not ready”? Because, as you know, opponents of greater self-government will use that as a lever against …
Yeah, I know. From a Norway House perspective, for instance, ten, 12 years ago when health transfer first started, the idea was that it’s better for the First Nation to be in control of health service programming and the direction that community’s going, because in terms of self-determination, self-government, that makes more sense. And it’s better for First Nations to be able to have control of that. So it’s better to transfer that.
Of course, it’s also in the [Canadian] government’s interest to transfer that, to be able to save money. So they did that with our local health clinic, for instance. And our clinic was transferred, and when it was transferred (not during my term but during Ron Evans’ term), they transferred it without looking at the salaries and increasing salaries. They weren’t looking at necessarily providing enough administrative support. They weren’t looking at being able to provide enough equipment. So, my people had to pee in pill bottles in order to be able to get testing done: isn’t that crazy? And that was our “transfer.”
And the problem is, it wasn’t negotiated correctly. Why wasn’t it negotiated correctly? It wasn’t negotiated correctly because, one, the then Chief and Council probably just wanted to get this done, but, two, had they known that to negotiate, they should have included all these things in those negotiations. And it wasn’t. So that’s what I mean about capacity. It’s too complicated. That makes sense in terms of health transfer, and I am pleased to say it is what we are currently working on now.
And in terms of capacity, we got x number of staff in our finance division, and we have one CEO who’s an outsider. So we have nobody educated in terms of being a chartered accountant to be able to sign off on our funding stuff, on our reporting requirements. But, we also have x amount of requirements under our funding agreement to provide audited financial statements. But we only get x amount of dollars to be able to do that and everything else.
So we don’t have the necessary funding to create locally-trained staff, thereby generating the capacity to even properly manage these funds from Treasury Board. So that’s what I mean about capacity.
Tell me if I’ve heard you correctly. What I’m hearing is that the federal government has undertaken this process of transfer/devolution to First Nations, to let them ‘control’ their own programs and services, but haven’t provided First Nations the financial and human resources they need to manage this effectively.
So is that an oversight on the federal government’s part?
I think it’s intentional.
Why do you say that?
Because before, long back in the day, as we started down these paths of transfer, don’t tell me that the federal government didn’t project where they were going with this, with the increase in population of First Nations on reserve and the requirements for the administration of this money.
Indian and Northern Affairs is a big operation. Don’t tell me they’re not planning this out and sort of saying, “Hmm… it might be better to off-load this onto First Nations, not give them enough resources to be able to do that, so we can keep within our budget.”
That’s assigning a very cynical set of motives to Indian Affairs.
Well, I would say that it’s not cynical at all from an Indian Affairs perspective. It absolutely is within their business lines to be able to keep within the budget that they’ve been told to keep within. So, it’s good management from INAC’s perspective. But at the end of the day, it adversely impacts a First Nation on the ground.
First Nations taking alleged ‘self-government/self-determination’ and control, such as it is, of programs and services that should properly be provided by the federal government, means that the federal government can strip themselves of other obligations to pay for federal staff and federal infrastructure.
So, we [First Nations] underpay our staff, for instance. And we don’t necessarily provide them such a good deal, like you would if you were working as a federal employee with a union and all this other kind of guaranteed increases for whatever, plus a pension and whatever else. And I think if you take a look at it from that perspective…
What should have been the agreement in place for this transfer of services and control? Other than to say, ‘there should have been adequate funding, there should have been adequate preparation of staff,’ how could it have turned it out differently?
I think if you take a look at certain things like, for instance, our Canada/First Nation Funding Agreement (CFNFA), [it] is supposedly something that we negotiate and sign off on every five years.
Quickly tell me what those are?
The Canada/First Nation Funding Agreement is a form of funding that’s provided by Treasury Board through INAC. And there’s different types: there’s comprehensive funding arrangements, and there’s alternative funding arrangements. This funding arrangement [CFNFA] allows us to be able to move money from one area to the other.
So it’s a block of funds?
Yes. It’s supposedly more flexible. But, when we went to sort of go sign this off, we were told three months prior, “Sign this off, or else you won’t be able to get your money. Because we’re not going to flow you money, and you won’t be able to pay your welfare, you won’t be able to pay your kids in school.”
So, every 5 years, you sign some agreement that has…
… their usual 2% [increase], but doesn’t necessarily capture all the real costs needed for running a First Nation.
Tell me the things it covers.
It covers band support funding, it covers money for education, social assistance, everything that’s required, except for health. Health is directly funded by Health Canada.
Everything but health, more or less.
And so this is agreed to in five-year blocks, with a 2 per cent increase every year.
And your criticism of this is… ?
For Norway House, we don’t have the proper costs included. Their funding formula — which they haven’t really shared with us, anyways — doesn’t necessarily cover all the costs that’s needed.
If they are funding us for x amount of people on social assistance, and we make some jobs, or we don’t make some jobs — which is a fluctuating amount — we could be underfunded when, I believe, Canada should actually be funding it fully. Same with education: Canada should be fully funding our students at a rate that’s similar to the province, and not underfunding us in a way that they’re saying, “Well, you decide. We’ll underfund you, and then you are able to decide where to take it from.”
So let me get this straight. You’re being asked by Indian Affairs to sign a funding agreement, but you don’t know how they come up with the funding formula for these costs that you have to deal with.
That’s right. And, even when we did ask for proper funding for what was not included, they said that they couldn’t help us out.
What is your annual budget, as Indian Affairs right now gives to you?
It’s $45 million a year, out of an overall budget of $70 million.
And that includes health…
… and other own-source revenue, which becomes another question altogether.
[Own-source revenues refer to those generated by First Nations themselves: possible sources of ‘OSR’ include First Nation owned businesses, local sales/property taxes, rents, fees for services, resource royalties, etc.]
Because they’re saying, “Look: there’s never been any intention for us to actually fully fund you. You’re supposed to bring up your own-source revenue.” That’s what one of their responses has been as well — i.e., taxation or economic development.
So whatever gap there is in funding as far you see it, Indian Affairs tells you, “You make it up.”
That’s right. They claim they have no responsibility for those costs.
So, to my mind, there’s underfunding in regard to our CFNFA, absolutely, on account of INAC; Health Canada, especially medical transportation — for instance, we had to shuffle people back and forth, back and forth, and Health Canada says, “Oh, we’re not going to cover this, ‘cause that doesn’t fit within policy,” even though people have to be in Winnipeg to be able to actually access health care. And then also in terms of housing. Those are the three main issues.
And then within the idea of INAC, we used to have “targeted funding” for some programs. This would mean whenever we would have x amounts of costs of welfare, they’d be covered off by INAC. This was the same for education costs. Now, we only have “block funding,” which is no longer targeted to the actual costs, but put in a block. So they know that we are going to be running out of money.
For instance, in education, there’s a 3.25% increase for staff on a yearly basis for Frontier School Division [teaching] staff, but with only a 2% cap, we’re always going to be 1.25% under. We projected that we’d be at least $9 million under-funded by the time our five-year funding agreement was over.
Now, I’m sure there’s people who will look at Norway House’s situation, just like many other First Nations, and wonder why the community just doesn’t “do it on its own,” and “stop going to Indian Affairs, stop looking for handouts or someone else to solve your problems.” In your experience, why isn’t it so simple?
I believe that kind of thinking is naïve and ill-informed. I think to say something like that would be great if everything was equal or the same, but it’s not.
For individuals on reserve, there’s an issue with respect to social conditions, housing conditions, where people are not necessarily pursuing education in the same manner, or even in the same position to be able to develop their own business opportunities.
And, collectively the band is not necessarily in the same position to be able to do that, where people would assume “Oh, you’re living in the city of Winnipeg, why don’t you just do it on your own?” Because there’s a lot of other development that needs to be done first on reserve.
Because, really, we don’t have the capacity. I mean, to a large extent, it’s true. “Why don’t you do it on your own?” Because we can’t. Period. We want to, absolutely. We’ve tried. But that’s increased our bottom line like crazy.
Take medical transportation again: when I became Chief, medical transportation was up $6 million; it wasn’t because it was fully mismanaged and we were just ‘carting our friends and families to the city.’ It was just that, compared to Health Canada’s staffing levels, our ability and capacity to maintain those records was lacking. They have the capacity and employees to monitor it, but we don’t.
However, when we went back over the records, Health Canada basically said, “Yeah, you’re right: you are entitled to x amount of dollars as well.” But we just weren’t on top of that. Why? We didn’t have the capacity to be able to do that. It took time to get it right, but we need to develop capacity on reserve.
Continue on to Part 2 of the interview …