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Aaron Pete: I am a First Nations politician. Our chiefs and leaders must be held more accountable

Commentary

Growing up I often heard about the challenges with chief and council leadership. It’s not difficult to find stories on social media, including countless TikToks shared by First Nations people, about leadership problems. As a First Nations person with a keen interest in politics, I’ve always admired good leadership when I saw it. Leaders like Chief Derek Epp, Chief David Jimmie, Chief Clarence Louie, and Chief Willie Sellars stood out to me as excellent examples of true community leaders. Sadly they are the exception rather than the rule.

My upbringing has been shaped by my single mother born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, a consequence of her mother using alcohol to cope with the traumas of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario. This personal history has given me a deep understanding of what “intergenerational trauma” actually means. Growing up, we lived near the poverty line, often running out of money a week before the next social assistance cheque. School was tough too. Teachers doubted my potential, suggesting to my mother during parent-teacher conferences that I was more likely to drop out and join a gang than graduate.

However, I used these challenges as motivation. I graduated from the University of the Fraser Valley with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. I then worked to help Indigenous people navigate the criminal justice system and earned a law degree from the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. Not long after that, I ran for a position in chief and council for my community in British Columbia at 26 years of age. Today I am a councillor for Chawathil First Nation, a place my family has called home since before Canada became a country. 

Effective governance is critical for our communities, where overcoming challenges like addiction, poverty, housing shortages, crime, and unemployment hinges on strong leadership and administrative integrity. Yet, many First Nation communities face serious issues of corruption, nepotism, and collusion.

In 2022, the chief of Westbank First Nation stepped down over corruption concerns within his band. At Seabird Island First Nation, a finance department employee was sent to jail after embezzling $2.3 million between 2005 and 2013. In Peters First Nation, an investigation into leadership revealed nepotism and prompted an RCMP inquiry into the misappropriation of funds. Similarly, concerns arose in Frog Lake First Nation when $120 million in net assets went missing.

First Nation struggles are complex, with roots in historical injustices. Yet, as leaders, we must also look within and recognize our role. We are not just caretakers of the land but agents of change, tasked with the sacred duty of uplifting our people. Unfortunately, the silence around the fulfillment of our own electoral promises is deafening. As leaders, we should be starting conversations about our progress and actively seeking feedback.

Our Indigenous community members work hard to provide for their families. They deserve leaders who are relentless in their pursuit of providing better education, community supports, and job opportunities. They need us to form alliances that reflect our values. They need us to secure funding for crucial infrastructure like housing.

The often sad realities of chief and council

I’ve now served as a council member for my community Chawathil First Nation (about 10 minutes outside of Hope, B.C.) for more than 18 months, and I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of accountable governance. Chief and council are often compared to a municipal government’s mayor and councillors. Similarly, we are responsible for ensuring the management of our administration office, sitting on various subcommittees, representing the community in forums and meetings, and advocating for change. But these First Nation leaders are unique because we are also responsible for managing reserve land, housing projects, and economic development opportunities, as well as meetings about our traditional territory (land that is not on the reserve but is where our nation was traditionally located). We’re also tasked with encouraging our members to pursue higher education, find gainful employment, and then bring that knowledge and experience back to the community. 

When I campaigned for council, there were no candidate forums, debates, or policy discussions; leadership choices were often reduced to familiar surnames on a ballot. I chose to run on a platform of increased economic development and a commitment to raise more money for community services. I hosted two all-candidate meetings with the one other council member who agreed to attend. I spoke with our local reporter and explained my vision of a bid for chief. While I was unsuccessful in my run for chief, losing by only 18 votes, I was elected as a council member. Without a clear presentation of goals and platforms, how can Indigenous community members make informed decisions about their leadership?

The role a chief or council member can play in our communities is significant. Prior to my arrival all 89 of our homes had significant health and safety issues. There was overcrowding and no plan for home repairs. There wasn’t even a housing manager or targets for new developments.

Once I took on the housing portfolio we turned a corner. To date, we’ve appointed a housing manager, completed extensive repairs in 20 units, and are in the process of renovating another 15 in the next six months. It is my goal that by the end of my term in September 2025, every home in our community will be repaired.  We’ve laid out a five-year strategy and are gearing up to apply for 30 new housing units.

The house that Louis Okimaw and his son live which has been deemed not fit for human habitation in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.
Journalists must hold our elected officials to account

The role of the media is vital in our communities. Investigative journalism must celebrate our wins, but also scrutinize our governance and constructively critique our failures. It is a catalyst for discussion and accountability. I’ve experienced the benefits of such scrutiny and understand its power to spark progress.

We all know the critical role journalism plays in local government. In one well-known Brookings study, researchers found newspaper closures had a direct causal impact on local government public finance. A loss of local newspapers meant a loss of accountability. The study showed that when newspapers folded, it led to an increase in government waste, corruption, and less informed voters. With 630 First Nation communities in Canada and journalism on the decline, one wonders how many investigative stories are simply being missed.

Canadian journalism is facing major financial hurdles. But it is crucial for the pursuit of reconciliation and addressing poverty in vulnerable communities. Supporting organizations such as IndigiNews, Overstory Media Group, and local journalists with increased funding is essential for covering local stories. We also need entities like the Assembly of First Nations to push for enhanced financial backing for these and other organizations dedicated to local investigative journalism, including coverage of chief and council meetings.

Ensuring a brighter future

Our communities grapple with significant challenges, including high rates of poverty, crime, and addiction, alongside lower levels of educational attainment and employment. 

In 2019, a study showed that 53 percent of First Nation children on reserve live in poverty. A 2020 report found that crime in Indigenous communities was six times higher than in non-Indigenous communities. Violent crime was almost nine times higher. Sixty-eight percent of non-Indigenous people have completed postsecondary education. But only 45.3 percent of First Nations people have.

First Nation communities are responsible for their own infrastructure like housing, water and sewage systems, and infrastructure. While the chief and council can’t single-handedly fix these issues, they can advocate for increased funding for educational opportunities, addiction services, and cultural support. Further, they can meet with stakeholders from Indigenous Services Canada, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and others to develop a plan to improve conditions.

I am certain First Nation communities are being held back from succeeding by leaders without a clear vision for improvement. This stagnation must be brought to light. As a community, we need to understand our leaders’ plans—or lack thereof—and hold them accountable.

I hear from members of other First Nation communities in my region who say their political leaders are not doing enough to address staffing issues or improve housing conditions. They add that some leaders are merely acting in their family’s own best interest. First Nations’ socio-economic success stories are celebrated because they are still the exception rather than the norm.

An Indigenous cultural shift is overdue. We need an environment where media scrutiny is routine, where community engagement is vigorous, and where stakeholders are held accountable. Leaders should welcome this shift, as it strengthens our strategies and reinforces our commitment.

I envision a culture of accountability, where leaders don’t just lead but also answer to the community. Where success is not just celebrated but also measured. Where every community member feels empowered to question and demand answers. 

Increased accountability and community engagement can lay the groundwork for First Nation communities to share their wisdom and culture, enriching Canadian society. 

As I advocate for this change, I extend an invitation to journalists, community members, and my fellow leaders to join in this newfound commitment to transparency and progress. It is crucial to remember that chief and council meetings are public forums. Despite some exceptions, there is ample opportunity for increased journalistic presence to shed light on decision-making and accountability.

We must acknowledge our vulnerabilities and commit to identifying and improving our weakest links. Only by holding our leaders accountable for their actions—or inactions—can we enact meaningful progress.

Together, let’s build a future where every First Nation community flourishes, guided by values of transparency, accountability, and continued progress.

Patrick Luciani: Is populism destroying European democracy?

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani takes a look at Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe, by Larry M. Bartels (Princeton University Press, 2024), which tries to assess just how much of a threat populism is to European democracy.

Those who have followed European politics over the past 15 years no doubt felt a significant decline in support of liberal democracy. These years were marked by the emergence of populist governments in Poland and Hungary and the seismic Brexit event in 2016. In Western Europe, the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, the right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Vox in Spain, and the recent rise of Chega in Portugal have only strengthened this perception. 

Numerous factors have contributed to Europe’s radical shift towards anti-elitist and anti-establishment parties. The economic disruptions of globalization, the influx of unregulated immigration from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries, and the alarming rise in crime have all played a significant role. Even in the traditionally stable and peaceful Scandinavian countries, immigration has strained the tolerance and budgets of generous social welfare programs. 

This situation has led to a widespread belief that traditional democratic institutions have failed to address the urgent need for reforms. The disillusionment with democratic liberalism is borne by Pew data and further amplified by Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s declaration that “the era of liberal democracy is over,” a sentiment that gained traction after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 

But those on the political Right aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with liberal democracy. Those on the progressive Left are perhaps even more disappointed with democratic liberalism’s very roots, which entrenched individual rather than group rights based on identity politics. Ireland’s recent rejection of a change in its constitution’s wording to incorporate group rights is a case in point. What was supposed to be an easy victory for Ireland’s political elites in redefining the meaning of relationships and the role of women in the home was solidly rejected by a public suspicious of an attack against traditional values. 

Though parties on the extreme Right in Europe have increased their vote count, they have yet to see their support garner more than 10 to 20 percent of the popular vote in most countries. 

In his new book on the erosion of European democracy entitled Democracy Erodes from the Top, Larry Bartels, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, challenges the prevailing notion that the public is the catalyst for radical reform. He is one of the rare thinkers who goes against the prevailing wisdom that the public is driving radical change in Europe. 

His extensive research, covering 23 European countries over the last 15 years, reveals a stark contrast between the perceived crisis of democracy and Europeans’ actual attitudes. Contrary to popular belief, support for democracy as a system of government has not weakened, and trust in national parliaments and politicians has remained virtually unchanged. Both go against conventional wisdom and general perception. 

People are reflected in a window with the logo of the World Economy Forum on the last day of the forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo.

The real culprits for the turmoil and European political troubles, or what Bartels calls “political backsliding,” lie not with ordinary citizens but with political elites. The author doesn’t conclude that citizens are passive agents in the demand for political change and play no role in demands for democratic reforms. He observes that we tend to exaggerate the threats of populism and the alarmism that comes with it.

He reminds us that the financial collapse of 2008 was routinely compared to the crisis in the 1930s, yet by 2014-15, average satisfaction with the economy in Europe was higher than before the crisis and continued to improve until COVID-19 hit in 2020. Public support for European integration held steady during the Euro crisis in the early years of the 21st century, and even under the threat that Greece would leave the Eurozone. 

What about the highly contentious problem of immigration? Where one would expect a deep deterioration of support and demand for more restrictions, Bartels sees little evidence in public surveys that immigration and asylum-seeking have produced “any significant erosion in public attitudes toward immigrants.”  

The author reminds us that warnings about the collapse of democracy are hardly rare. Popular and scholarly writings about the crisis of democracy have a long history and can be found in articles in Foreign Affairs from the 1930s. Most recent books on the rise of populism, such as David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, have been inspired by Trump’s election in the U.S. or Bolsonaro in Brazil and the threat they and other populist leaders pose to liberal democracies. But populism is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Populists too often make the mistake of believing they are fulfilling the “will of the people” and find there is no such thing. Professor Bartels reminds us trying to discern what people truly believe is hard work.