For Canada's Native People, a Symbol of Misery and Mismanagement


The land is majestic: forests, lakes, broad hills that curl up against the edge of the Rocky Mountains. It holds wealth: oil, natural gas, timber.

Morley should be one of Canada's most blessed Indian reservations. But it is one of the most woeful, beset by a host of problems--a suicide epidemic, an arson outbreak, mismanagement so flagrant that the federal government assigned an auditing firm to run day-to-day affairs.

"The people do not have hope," said Sue Olsen, a legislator in the Alberta provincial parliament who is part Indian. "There is every social problem imaginable--on a reserve that has a tremendous amount of money and is one of the most beautiful in the country."

Many Indian communities across Canada suffer from social and economic ills. But the Morley reservation, inhabited by 2,700 Assiniboine Indians known as the Stoneys, has become a distinctive symbol of all that can go bad, even in a place with such potential for prosperity.

Most Canadians knew little of Morley until last June, when the regional judge, John Reilly, vented his frustration at the seemingly endless stream of alcohol- and drug-related criminal cases coming from the reservation.

Rather than sentence a Morley man for assaulting his wife in a drunken rage, Reilly ordered provincial prosecutors to investigate social conditions, political corruption and financial mismanagement on the reservation. The judge noted the defendant's alcohol-treatment program had been canceled by tribal officials, then called the reservation a "welfare ghetto" and likened its leaders to "the dictatorship of a banana republic."

Alberta officials rebuffed Reilly, saying he had overstepped his authority. Morley's top chief, John Snow, called the ruling "false and racist" and denied accusations of administrative corruption.

But the judge's unprecedented salvo shook up the reservation.

Dissidents were emboldened to speak out publicly against their leaders. The federal Indian Affairs Department felt obligated to send in two auditing squads--one to run day-to-day affairs and the other to investigate alleged fiscal abuses.

Tina Fox, who serves on the tribal council and is among the most outspoken of the dissidents, said many of Morley's problems stem from poor use of the millions of dollars of oil and gas royalties earned by the reservation since the 1970s. At their peak in the mid-1980s, the royalties totaled more than 50 million Canadian dollars a year, or about $35 million. That made Morley one of Canada's richest reservations, but social programs have been gutted, school attendance is down to 40%, and the reservation has a deficit of several million dollars.

"If we'd been accountable all this time, it wouldn't have come to this," said Fox, interviewed at her home while caring for her former rodeo-cowboy husband, who is dying of has Lou Gehrig's disease.

Most of the royalty money has been doled out to individuals rather than invested on behalf of the whole tribe. The monthly payments peaked at $350 a person in the mid-'80s, but have dwindled to $60. More than 60% of Morley's residents are on welfare.

A few economic development initiatives were undertaken, most ending in failure. Tribal leaders have been criticized for spending lavishly on their own activities, such as holding a budget meeting in Arizona.

Fox feels the reservation sold part of its soul by relying so heavily on federal funds.

"People say the government is supposed to look after them as long as the sun rises and the river flows," she said. "To me, that means we've given away the power over ourselves."

Fox, whose son, Moses, was killed in a drunk-driving crash in 1986, keeps a record of the reservation's grim statistics of deaths caused by suicide, drugs or alcohol. There have been more than 100 such deaths since 1990, a dozen in the last year--mostly of young people. It is a huge toll in such a small community.

At Morley, 52% of the residents are younger than 25. Belva Wesley, wife of a former chief, said many of them despair over the lack of job prospects.

"They look at life on the reserve and they think, 'What is there here for me?' They look at the reserve as a prison," she said.

Wesley heads a program that tries to interest Morley's youths in off-reservation jobs. The surrounding region, which lies between Banff National Park and the city of Calgary, is one of the most booming in Canada.

She said Snow--Morley's chief for 25 of the last 29 years--failed to create private-sector jobs in Morley or encourage self-reliance among his people.

"John always gave them free handouts," Wesley said. "That's what they think they want."

Virtually the only jobs on the reservation are under the control of the council run by Snow, who has given high-paying posts to his children and fired dozens of employees for what they say were political reasons.

So deep is the uneasiness that one non-Indian employee granted an interview only on condition of anonymity, then asked to switch tables at a restaurant because of fear the customers at the next booth would overhear her whispers. She said employees could lose their jobs for speaking to journalists.

Snow, an ordained United Church minister, and his two co-chiefs have restricted contact with journalists in the face of criticism that they prospered while their people suffered. They have denied wrongdoing and pledged to carry out any reforms recommended by the federal auditors, even though the process has been embarrassing.

"The people are hurting," said one co-chief, Henry Holloway. "A lot of their dignity is gone."

There are widespread doubts about whether the audits will be the catalyst for meaningful change. Rick Butler, a non-Indian who serves as the reservation's administrator, says failure to establish better local government could be devastating. "Young people are really hoping this is the fix, that there will be fairness and accountability," he said. "If it doesn't get fixed, they'll look elsewhere. A lot of them are very leery. To them, it's all talk so far."

The reservation suffered another setback Feb. 9 when four vacant buildings, including the community center, were destroyed by arson. Two weeks later, police charged three Indians but refused to comment on possible motives.

"Something like this makes it seem that we make three steps forward and two steps back," Butler said.

For Morley and other reservations where most of Canada's 800,000 Indians live, the future is not necessarily brighter.

A new government census report says Canada's aboriginal peoples have a birth rate 70% higher than the general population and projects that the number of Indians ages 15-24 will increase 26% by 2006. That means an ever deeper need for social services that, in Morley's case, are already in disarray.

"It really frightens me," Reilly said in an interview in his judicial chambers in Cochrane, a town next door to Morley. "I'm seeing the next generation of Stoney people come through the courts already. With the high birth rate, the problem is going to increase geometrically.

"It's getting worse," he added. "You're going to have more and more disillusioned Stoney people resorting to more and more violence."

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