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Community Spirit Revives Indian Reserve

Canadian tribe tackles debt, checks power of chiefs under more democratic system

TWO roughly equal and opposite forces are at work in the push for native self-government in Canada: new progress and old poverty.

Both are in full view along the two-lane road that enters the Fort Alexander Indian reservation and winds its way to a lonely, dilapidated church looking across at a spartan, cinder-block tribal office.

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Farther down the road from the office is a large, modern structure of steel girders and plate-glass windows. It is a combination sports-complex and shopping center that is a source of new pride to this community.

On the banks of the Winnipeg River near the south eastern tip of Lake Winnipeg, Fort Alexander is home to the Sagkeeng First Nation - an Ojibway tribe of 4,400 that in six years has traveled from a state of abject despondency to one of vibrancy. Its government has been rebuilt along democratic lines, and finances have improved - though the tribe is still struggling to balance its books.

Decaying roads link tiny, wood-frame homes in varying states of repair. Yet on the horizon across the river is the outline of a new high school under construction. With an ample supply of such contradictions, this reserve (the Canadian term for reservation) is a budding model of native self-government and a work in progress, observers say.

Heavy debt payments are balanced against new spending on badly needed housing, the high school, and water and sewer lines, says the reservation's chief Jerry Fontaine. There is a new Italian restaurant, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and finally, to everyone's relief, a modest grocery store.

``I think Fort Alex-ander's revival has been measured, well planned, with good leadership - and that's the key,'' says Damon Johnston, a native activist in Winnipeg. ``They were ex-posed to a lot of the difficulties common to other reserves, and they've made great strides.''

Unemployment has fallen by about a third in the past six years, the chief says. Young and old residents are becoming more active in reserve politics. There is renewed interest in traditional native culture, and the advice of elders is sought on many matters.

Leona Tencha, a Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) project officer who has worked closely with the Ojibways at Fort Alexander, is upbeat about the reserve's new approach to managing - as typified in the building of the shopping center.

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``I've worked with them on several projects that have all been managed wonderfully,'' she says. ``I just know it's going really well right now.''

It wasn't always that way. Until about six years ago, Fort Alexander was one of the most politically polarized, badly managed reserves in Manitoba Province, observers say. The reserve's unemployment rate was 67 percent. It was $4 million (Canadian; US$2.9 million) in debt. Its political apparatus had disintegrated, leaving no one in charge. At that low point in 1988, the reserve went into receivership, and the DIA stepped in.

Community par-ticipation was almost nil, and what little existed were families feuding over interim policies. There was no garbage pickup, running water, or any other significant community service that band officials today can recall.

``It was in terrible shape,'' says George Munroe, a Metis (of French-Indian descent) who worked at the reserve and assisted in it's recovery. Mr. Munroe credits Mr. Fontaine, who left academic studies in Europe to return home, for the improvement.

``I had no intention of coming back to run as chief,'' says the scruffy, bespectacled Fontaine, as he leans back in a creaking chair in his tiny office. ``But people convinced me to look at it and give it a try.''

Fontaine, born and raised in Fort Alexander, completed high school at 17 and earned a political science degree at the University of Manitoba. He worked for several Indian organizations, then left for France for his master's degree at the European University.

The first steps Fontaine took after returning and winning election as chief in 1988 were to stir consensus for change and write a new constitution for the reserve. Among many changes, the constitution made the chief and council accountable to the people.

With the tribe's endorsement, Fontaine began analyzing what was wrong with Fort Alexander. Sifting through years of financial records, it was obvious, he says, that a new system of government with checks and balances was needed to eliminate kickbacks.

A committee was elected to monitor financial oversight. A new public works committee was given the task of building new water and sewer lines and setting objective criteria for collecting bids and letting contracts.

But Fontaine went further, creating a self-government committee that the tribe called its Anicinabe, or human being, committee. That committee went to the elders of the tribe to find out how their government had been conducted historically. A key result was the 1991 tribal constitution called Tebewewin, or The Truth, a guiding document that limits the chief's and the tribal council's powers. It also made them accountable to a tribal general assembly.

After Fontaine took charge, Fort Alexander tightened cost controls and quickly retired C$1.9 million of its C$4 million debt. That encouraged banks to make new loans to the reserve. The loans for needed physical improvements brought debt back up to just under C$4 million, Fontaine says. DIA officials say the reserve's deficits and debt are too high.

And there are other persistent problems. The reserve unemployment rate, though improved, is still running 40 percent to 50 percent. Creating jobs is a priority, Fontaine says. An integrated, wood-products manufacturing complex on the reserve would add 50 direct jobs and another 50 indirect ones, cutting unemployment to 15-20 percent, he says.

That would cost C$40 million and require outside investment. But Fontaine says the fact that the reserve can choose to take on new project, because it is setting its own agenda out from under the daily direction of the DIA, is his greatest reward.

``This is a new thing for us,'' Fontaine says. ``So far it's steady as she goes. We'll undoubtedly make some mistakes. But the mistakes will be our own.''

* Next: Canada's natives flex their financial strength, Monday.

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