Structural flaws doom First Nation

Article written by Gerald Flood, Winnipeg Free Press dated May 7, 2006.I met a man at Island Lake this winter who told me he expected to make $400,000 this year, and next year and the year after that.  His goal, he said, was to make $2 million over the next five years. 

Does he make that much?  Who knows.  But chances are he could because there is money to be made on even the poorest reserves, it just usually isn't.  Most reserve residents in the three First Nations at Island Lake, Garden Hill, St. Theresa Point and Waasagomach - subsist on welfare.  The $400,000 dollar man came to mind this week when I read that Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs, was "frustrated to the point of anger" that the federal budget did not include the $5-billion Kelowna accord promised to First Nations people by Paul Martin last fall.  Instead of the first $1 billion this year, the budget contained $450 million, or $710,000 per reserve in Canada.  I can understand Evans' frustration; more is often better than less, but that is not what reminded me of the 400,000-dollar man.  Evans went on to say that "We have crime and health and education and infrastructure issues like the rest of the country, but for some reason (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper misses that point."  Well, perhaps Harper does miss that point.  But Evans seems to have missed a point too - which is that the rest of the country doesn't rely solely on Ottawa to deal with the costs of crime and health and education and infrastructure issues.  The rest of the country works and pays taxes to three levels of government and to school boards.  Which is not to say that First Nations people would not do the same if they had the opportunity; it's just that they don't, which is why no reasonable amount of transfer will ever by enough.  And that's what got me thinking about the 400,000-dollar man.  The most recent audited information pertaining to the three First Nations at Island Lake shows that last year Ottawa gave the bands just under $68 million, or about $8,500 per capita.  Granted, on an individual basis and in the absence of other incomes and in the face of high costs in communities without road links to the outside, that is not a lot of money.  But in aggregate it is a lot of money.  It's enough that one man can earn $400,000 a year in business in Island Lake, and there are a lot of men in business at Island Lake, just not on reserve land.  What struck me when I visited the communities a year ago, and then again this March, is that there is no local economy to speak of.  At St. Theresa Point, there is a Northern Store that sells everything from food to outboard motors.  There is one restaurant that sells burgers, chicken strips, fried chips and eggs, coffee and pop.  There is a "convenience store" that sells mostly chips and pop.  The hotel, built just a few years ago, is closed for renovations, I was told.  And that might be the only reason.  Certainly when I stayed there last year it was already badly in need of renovations.  But it just as easily could have closed for lack of cash flow.  You see, when it was open it housed mostly reserve residents who had no other place to stay.  How could the place possible pay its bills and run its restaurant - it was the other restaurant - without paying customers?  What I have described here is pretty much the sum total of businesses to be found in St. Theresa, a community of 3,200.  It's not different at Waasagomach (1,600 residents) or at Garden Hill (3,800), where it's motel-restaurant complex is closed and where the former grocery store is boarded up after failing under band management.  But this makes no sense.  Where is the butcher, the baker, the barber, the hairdresser?  Where is the tackle shop, the hardware store, the bank?  Where is the appliance store, the appliance repair shop, the arcade?  Where is the garage to repair vehicles, of which there are a surprising number, including a fair number of new pickups and SUVs?  The new trucks are a reminder that not everyone is unemployed at Island Lake.  The band provides some work, as do the nursing station and schools.  Why there are no businesses I cannot say.  A lack of education and training partly explains it - if you don't know how to make money you probably won't.  Without doubt the lack of private property is part of the answer - if you have no assets you have no collateral to start a business.  As well, communal ownership is a disincentive to invest - why start something that can be taken away? - which explains why most private businesses are owned by white folks and are not located on reserves.  What all this amounts to is an almost complete lack of a local economy.  For the most part, $68 million goes into the next flight out.  Money doesn't change hands and so no wealth is generated, no jobs are created, no taxes are paid and there is not nearly enought to deal with crime and education and the rest.  Even if an explosion of small businesses occurred on reserves, the level of prosperity would not equal that of a small rural community in the South - the Island Lake First Nations would still be dependent on welfare because small business alone is not enough.  But until there is a local economy and some form of taxation to help pay for services, Evans will remain frustrated.  Not so the 400,000-dollar man.