a struggle for sovereignty
Volatile politics, stubborn bureaucracies and loss of local control hamper progress
By Adam Bent, Mequonase Favel, Libby Giesbrecht and Danna Henderson
When Cadmus Delorme became Chief of Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan in 2016, the Nation faced a major barrier to addressing water quality problems.
The Nation was under what would become a long-term boil water advisory. Only 25 per cent of homes were directly connected to the treatment plant and water pipes and cisterns were in poor shape. But convincing Ottawa to address these needs wasn’t easy, Delorme recalls.
Complicating matters, following allegations of financial mismanagement and corruption made by residents against the previous Chief and Council, the Nation had been placed under a federal co-management program — a situation that hampered local decision-making.
Reviewing the data gathered by journalists, several experts attributed the issues with water quality on reserves like Cowessess primarily to a lack of control by First Nations over their funding and the opaque processes they have to go through to access resources.
“You get funded to support your water treatment plant…but you don’t really get funded for homes and the cisterns and changing the pipes,” Delorme says.
The Council gathered resources like a “squirrel,” he recalls, moving other budget lines so that pipes could be dug up and replaced.
As well, Delorme says while Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) readily funds chemical purchases, the ministry had to be persuaded to support a more natural approach using bio-filters.
Root causes and local solutions neglected
Delorme said his relationship with ISC is good these days, but it took hard work to be heard in Ottawa.
“We got out of the boil water advisory with a couple of pretty bold moves from both ISC and us … We both looked at each other and said, ‘Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to lift boil water advisories. This is what we want.’ And we gave them a list,” says Delorme.
Today Cowessess’ 27-year-old plant is equipped with a new bio-filtration system, and a year-old boil water advisory was lifted in February 2018.
Yet a core problem identified by Chief and Council — homes not connected to the treatment plant — leaves many homes still without clean tap water.
“I have the little grandkids coming over in the morning and they’re brushing their teeth. I have to remind them that they gotta get their water from here. ‘And how come, kookum?’ My water’s not good … They don’t understand,” says Council member Pat Sparvier.
This history stands as an example of First Nation leaders understanding the root cause of a water problem but struggling over years to gain support for locally-determined solutions.
Suzanne Trottier, director of capacity development and intervention at the First Nations Financial Management Board, offers an example.
“The City of Winnipeg gets their clean water from Shoal Lake, and the First Nation sitting on the shores of Shoal Lake has not had clean water for 40 years… And that’s the unwillingness of the federal government to give the dollars to build the infrastructure, right?” she says.
Further, a list obtained by the investigation shows 13 of Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations have been placed under the Default Protection Management Program, a federal oversight program meant to ensure debts are quickly cleared.
The program can lead First Nations to prioritize paying back loans, often taken out to kick-start major infrastructure projects such as housing.
No say over spending
Terrance Pelletier, a sessional lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan and former Chief of Cowessess First Nation, says this can limit funding for other community programs and services, such as water quality.
After a major flood disrupted water services in 2013, Pelletier had to make the difficult decision to give up care of his children at home. “It was absolutely hopeless living in a house with no running water, no hot water, no way to keep the kids clean,” he recalls. “And I gave up. I cried the same night they left.”
When crises happen, whether via natural disasters or political turmoil, and debts mount, Ottawa may place the Nation under third-party oversight, which lessens the ability of Nations to respond to immediate budgetary needs.
“The only place (a Nation) might have a say is if they have their own source of revenue from a land claim or wherever. They don’t have a say over government money. So it does impact — it impacts over a generation,” Pelletier says.
Saskatchewan’s non-Indigenous villages and towns don’t face the same constraints in times of economic or political instability. “At no time in the process does the government take over management,” a spokesperson for the provincial Ministry of Government Relations stated in an email.
In 2015 Cowessess First Nation was required to develop an action plan to pay back loans. Although this is the least invasive level of intervention, the focus on retiring debts still had an impact.
“It was a volatile time … From what I remember on the reserve, people weren’t happy,” recalls band member Wes Lerat. “They weren’t happy with the current administration, but they were also weren’t happy being managed by outside forces.”
“You can’t run a water treatment plant without making stern decisions,” says Chief Delorme. “And if you’re in co-management, that means … there’s another parent out there that’s making a decision for you. And sometimes that parent is sitting in an office in Fort Qu’Appelle, Regina, and they don’t know the true situation that’s going on.”
Other provinces have even higher rates in co-management. In Ontario the percentage stands at 18 per cent, involving 24 out of 133 Nations. And in Manitoba, 37 of 63 First Nations — 58 per cent — are under some form of co-management.
High-priced Advisors imposed
Shiri Pasternak, research director of Ryerson University’s Yellowhead Institute in Toronto, has conducted extensive research into the program over the past decade, particularly with a focus on Algonquins of Barriere Lake Nation in Quebec.
With co-management comes high-priced accounting firms that First Nations must pay from existing funds, Pasternak notes.
“What is a reasonable expectation for expecting them to generate a surplus over time, given that they’re also then paying this surcharge to the accountants to get them out of debt? It’s a very nonsensical system,” said Pasternak.
In 2002, James Smith Cree Nation was placed under the most invasive level of intervention, a federally-appointed third-party manager.
The Nation remains under co-management to this day, though since the program was revamped in 2011 they now have the ability to appoint their own advisor, referred to as a Recipient-Appointed Advisor.
Speaking on behalf of the community, Justin Burns, former Chief of James Smith Cree Nation, attributed part of the nation’s current infrastructure problems to losing control of its finances.
“It is like a dictatorship when it comes to dealing with co-managers,” Burns says.
“They have the final say on anything that goes out and comes in… It was more or less they should be the Chief and they should be the council because they were controlling every dollar that came into the community.
Pasternak argues co-management was not an effective policy to impose on First Nations, but Ottawa has escaped having to publicly defend the program.
“I think people on the ground and communities knew what a huge issue it was,” she says. “But…I feel like it was one of those slow-burn issues that was so complex that it just never became an accessible issue that people understood about Crown-First Nations relations.”
At James Smith Cree Nation the understanding is clear. “It’s pretty hard to feel sovereign when you have outside agencies telling you how to spend funds,” Burns says.