(Senator Daniel Christmas. Photo credit: APTN)
By Joseph Quesnel, AIMS Fellow
At the end of October, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed a new Indigenous senator from Nova Scotia who may have important insight into improving First Nation communities.
Daniel Christmas of Membertou, an Indigenous community on Cape Breton Island, is believed to be the first Mi’kmaq senator, which is a great accomplishment in and of itself. Christmas also happens to be a First Nation man who was instrumental in helping transform the Indigenous community from near-bankrupt status (along with almost 100% unemployment) to one of the most successful Indigenous communities in Canada. The community back then experienced serious financial management issues. They even struggled at some points with making social assistance payments.
Christmas served on the community’s governing council and has been Membertou’s senior adviser since 1997. Over the years, he was involved in some of the community’s most important developments.
The community now boasts schools, daycares, a convention centre, as well as a hotel, entertainment centre, and a museum development. Membertou has also embraced an economic development model that allows for maintaining some properties in fee simple property ownership status. This decision has allowed the community to use community lands as collateral for loans. The community has declined to convert some of their development lands into reserve lands, which has allowed them to better attract outside investors.
The community went from a deficit to an exploding operating budget. It also has a booming workforce and is a net employer in the Sydney, N.S. region. In 2014, Membertou generated 86 per cent of its revenue through its community businesses, business investments and partnerships. This stands in contrast to so many Indigenous communities that are dependent on federal transfers.
In 2002, Membertou became the first Indigenous government in the world to become ISO certified. ISO, developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), offers independent confirmation that an organization or community has a quality management system. ISO certification demonstrates to outside parties—usually investors and partnering businesses—that the community has standardized its management controls. Some companies only work with ISO-compliant organizations.
With this real-world experience with best practices for Indigenous communities, Christmas is well placed to provide great advice and recommendations on Indigenous issues that the Senate may be confronted with. The Senate leadership needs to put Christmas on the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.
Political parties do not own great ideas. Let’s hope that the prime minister’s new merit-driven, arm’s- length Senate process will select new non-partisan Indigenous senators who understand how we can improve Indigenous communities, based on hard evidence.