Last month I received an email from a Lower Kootenay resident who expressed a myriad of frustrations and concerns with governance and administration. The letter was articulate and thoughtful, but it was of epic length and had some statements about which I had legal concerns.
Subsequently, I met with the writers and heard firsthand about the issues. Thinking about the letter and the Lower Kootenay community over the past few weeks, I have come to believe that no real change will occur until big issues are addressed. I’m thinking primarily of the Indian Act, an archaic piece of legislation that has kept many First Nations individuals and communities in a state of limbo for generations.
Sooner or later, the federal government is going to have to bite the bullet and scrap the act and turn over ownership of land and resources to the people. It won’t be an easy transition — the feds no doubt fear that the land and resources, in many cases, will end up being sold and First Nations people will be without a land base or continuing sources of income. That’s a paternalistic approach that is sadly out of sync with the times, though, and it simply has to go.
More than a year ago I attended a meeting with some Lower Kootenay residents who were unhappy with the way the band council and administration were operating. Now, after an election and a change of chiefs, and the hiring of a new administrator and changes in several key positions, at least some of the people who were unhappy before think there hasn’t been much change.
The Lower Kootenay Band has not much more than a hundred residents, including children. It is seriously divided among those who support one of two families. There are divisions in those families, too. As in any community, there are people who simply don’t participate, through lack of interest or lack of anything to contribute. Simply put, there isn’t a large population pool to draw from when it comes to elected and administrative positions.
Jobs are scarce in Lower Kootenay. As in any tiny community, perceptions arise that favouritism rules. Allegations of conflicts of interest have been made, before and after the changes on band council and administration and I have come to conclude that such conflicts are inevitable. There are simply too few bodies to fill too many positions.
I considered former chief Chris Luke to be a friend, and I have spent some time with new Chief Jason Louie and have come to be a great admirer of his character and determination to help improve the lot of the people he was elected to serve. Many of the residents’ frustrations, I think, have arisen because the community is so small and interactions inevitably lead to disagreements in which no resolution can be found that will keep everyone happy.
I think what has caused me to lose some sleep in recent weeks is that I really like all the people I know in Lower Kootenay. First Nations people seem to be able to take a big picture look at the world, even when their own part in it has incredible challenges. And they always seem to be able to find humour in the most distressing of situations.
Are there any immediate steps that can be taken to help the community move ahead in a positive way? I suppose a focus might be on the education of band councillors so that each is aware of his or her responsibilities. B.C. municipal and rural elected officials now get annual training in governance, learning where their responsibilities lie and what decisions must be left to the people they hire. It’s a slow learning curve for some, who think that getting elected makes them managers, but the concepts do eventually take hold.
If the band council can demonstrate that it is aware of, and operates under, the rules and laws that regulate it, the approach might take hold through the rest of the community. Residents, like the people they elect, all need to have an appreciation for the challenges their community faces, and an understanding that they are best tackled with a common vision for the future.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.