“Indian Agents” for the Modern Age  

On First Nations reserves, government accountability requirements sow internal divisions

The essentials

The external demands for accountability reporting have long been a source of friction for First Nations communities, particularly since the passage in 2013 of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. But within these communities, attitudes toward accountability are much more nuanced, according to Russell Evans, a doctoral student at Smith School of Business. In 2016, Evans interviewed 35 band leaders, administrative managers, and residents of First Nations reserves in northern regions of Ontario. He found that band managers — generally Indigenous yet trained and acculturated outside reserves — perceive government accountability as hierarchical and a necessary part of funding. Political leaders and other elected officials view accountability as a socializing practice and that government-imposed forms should be resisted as much as possible. In this conversation with Smith Business Insight, Evans argues that today’s band managers have been made to play the role of the so-called “Indian agents” of the pre-1960s era.

Accountability to Control and Contain

When I started working in this area, I wanted to deal specifically with the reporting process because that’s the main method for making the administrations and the political leaders accountable to the Government of Canada as well as to the individuals who live on reserve. The academic Dean Neu points out that this form of accountability is really a social experiment designed to control and contain the population. If you look at the mandates of early departments responsible for carrying out the Indian Act, it’s quite clear they had a paternalistic agenda.

Those systems haven’t changed much since they were put in place. In First Nations reserves, Western practices of accounting and accountability are imposed on the communities, assuming these communities are the same as others in Canada. They don’t take into account any cultural differences in terms of how people interact with each other, how they address person-to-person accountability.

The concept of a reporting structure to an outside government was foreign to these small communities. Part of the reason why it caught hold was the implementation of “Indian agents” who worked in the communities to make sure that it happened. In the 1960s, these agents gave way to a regional and district office approach, where there’s still control over how reporting occurs but now at a distance.

Differing Views of Transparency Act             

The form of accountability that I looked at initially was the interpersonal accountability that existed in the communities themselves, how political leaders remain accountable to community members. I found there was a big difference in how they perceived accountability and how they enacted it in the community itself.     

Initially, I wasn't looking at separating managers from political leaders. Even though I’m Indigenous, I grew up outside these communities. I shared the general misconception of many Canadians that First Nations people all have the same values and the same ethics and morals, based on the same traditional teachings. When I went into these communities, I saw that there were major differences in how people responded to the questions I was asking, specifically about accountability.           

When I questioned people about the First Nations Transparency Act, I thought I would get a negative response across the board. I did get a negative response from political leaders but the managers were actually in favour of it and called for more transparency. That surprised me quite a bit.

Reversing the Political Hierarchy

Within the band office and community governance, managers report to the Chief and Council. The Chief and Council view them as their subordinates, there to do whatever they need to have done, including the government reporting. They didn’t really have a wholeheartedly negative view of them; they just saw managers as, ‘I’m here to do a job, as a Council member or Chief, and they’re there to guide me along the way.’ They didn’t see managers as an extension of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), but, in many ways, that’s the role that they were playing.

Informally, managers became the keepers of the money where Council members were socialized to seek approval for their spending with them, although not all of them did. It reversed the political hierarchy within the office; it became more of an administrative hierarchy where managers had more control than the organizational structure would indicate. They saw themselves as the guides for the community, making sure the community stayed sustainable, that funding and spending were in control, and that the community didn’t overextend itself or underspend, which they viewed as being worse because then they wouldn’t get the same level of funding the next year.

The way managers interacted with political leaders and community members was as if they were parents. When I was looking at some of the past work on Indian agents, that’s exactly how they described the communities they were in charge of. They described them as “their Indians” and had this paternal instinct for them. I saw that in a lot of the comments that managers were making. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they are exercising the policies and regulations passed down from INAC.

An overall system of control and containment is still in existence. You see these individuals coming in with the best intentions but then being pulled into the funding system where they must follow these rules and policies in order to make sure the community survives. They get drawn into this broader system and lose the desire they had at the beginning to help. They’re helping in the way that the system allows them to help. This is what the position entails, and it’s all governed by a system that’s been in place since the Indian Act was enacted in 1876.

For Managers, Worlds Colliding

Some of the managers I interviewed had a mistrust of band governing bodies growing up. One of them described how her mother had been pushed out of the community because she married a non-Indigenous person, something her mother resented. But now the daughter was back and working within the exact office that she was describing. I think many of them were rediscovering their Indigenous side later in life. They saw the socioeconomic conditions on reserves and thought, ‘I can do something about this. I want to have an impact, so I’m going back to help them be better at managing money and managing the conditions on the reserve.’

These managers were raised and educated in Canadian society outside the reserve communities. They bring all these ingrained cultural values with them into the community. So when they see something that doesn’t fit with what they were raised to believe, there’s an internal tension.

A Different Way of Being Accountable

When issues come up within the community, the Chief prefers to talk to people face-to-face. That’s how he remains accountable. If someone came in to complain about not seeing progress on a certain project or a question about where money is going, he’ll go to their homes, have tea, and talk with them. That process is very slow. A lot of times, band meetings are not well-attended, so the Chief ends up having to visit people again or make phone calls. In my mind, I’m thinking it’s an inefficient process, but it’s also much more effective because each one of those people has a chance to have his or her opinions turned around.

Given that slow process, there were a lot of people in the community who complained about a lack of transparency or the Chief or Council not being accountable. They were being accountable, but in a different way. This is what I think the managers are seeing. They’re seeing a way of doing things that doesn’t quite fit with a Western way of doing things, so they’re discounting it or not giving it a chance to come to fruition.

Interview by Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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