July 18, 2016
Ian Warner

Evolving Indigenous Governance

Interview with Institute on Governance executives Barry Christoff and Laura Edgar

There are a wide range of indigenous organizations with boards – from community based enterprises and health authorities to regional and national organizations (such as Friendship Centres). Some of these are independent, not for profit or private organizations; some are creations of First Nation governments, while others are provincially or nationally mandated. There is also a range of political organizations with governing bodies. The number of such organizations is likely to proliferate in Canada following the federal government’s commitment to a renewed relationship with Indigenous communities.

The Institute on Governance is one of Canada’s leading organizations serving as advisors, researchers and educators on governance in the broader public sphere, including Indigenous governance and not for profit governance. Barry Christoff, VP-Indigenous Governance and Laura Edgar VP-Board & Organizational Governance, talked recently with Ian Warner, Aprio President & CEO about the governance complexity faced by Indigenous organizations seeking to build stronger boards, engage multiple voices and support consensus-based decision-making.

Aprio: How has the Institute on Governance seen Indigenous governance needs evolve over the last 5-10 years?

Laura Edgar: In the last few years, we’ve been receiving more requests to help support Indigenous organizations build capacity to meet governance requirements. Indigenous organizations are not immune to the general trend underway across all public, private and non-profit organizations that put greater emphasis on governance, as organizations and their leaders develop a greater understanding of the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of boards. In fact, in some cases, Indigenous organizations may face a more complex set of governance requirements.

Barry Christoff: The First Nations Health Authority of BC (FNHA) is a good example of the type of governance complexity that can occur. The FNHA with three other partner organizations are directed and mandated under agreements between the federal, provincial, and BC First Nations governments to provide health care to First Nations. With roughly half a billion dollar budget, it has governing layers including the First Nations Health Council, the FNHA Board and related health organizations. For effective transparent information exchange, timely decisions and engagement between all the layers, the FNHA requires clear and manageable governance practices and strong leadership among various groups.

Aprio: What has IOG observed in terms of governance objectives for Indigenous communities and organizations? Are the needs typical of other organizations or unique?

Laura Edgar: The overall roles and responsibilities, legal obligations and accountability expectations of boards of directors are generally the same but there is uniqueness in how Indigenous organizations and communities often seek to put governance into practice. Commonly, there is a greater emphasis on hearing the voices of a multitude of members and the broader community than is typical of other organizations.

Barry Christoff: For example, a national organization like the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has more than 600 First Nation representatives with the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) acting as the AFN’s Secretariat. As well, the AFN has established a Council of Elders, Council of Women, and a National Youth Council. Engaging broad input from all of those groups is demanding and an essential part of the AFN’s governance.

Laura Edgar: For indigenous organizations, a consensus-based decision approach is common. This can impact board information requirements and the time needed to take decisions. There is also the challenge of consultation fatigue where you have some community members who are called upon to participate in multiple organizations and it can be a struggle to get them engaged.

Barry Christoff: We are seeing Indigenous led institutions such as the First Nation Financial Management Board (FNFMB), First Nations Taxation Commission (FNTC), the First Nations Finance Authority (FNFA) and the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association (AFOA) working with First Nations to develop their own optional governance standards which may be adopted by First Nations and First Nation controlled institutions whether private or public. We are observing these developments under the First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FNFMA) For example, these optional standards, require the creation of audit committee, which is set up from a bond issuance requirement perspective.

Aprio: What have you seen work well and prove challenging for First Nation economic boards?

Laura Edgar: We’re seeing First Nation Councils set up separate economic boards to draw a distinction between financially focused developments and other council consultation and decision making. This can help take the political element out of economic decisions like resource development. Private partnerships, if done right, can be effective and are becoming more common. For example, as resource and energy companies seek development in First Nation communities, private partnerships may be struck. These are complex consultations and negotiations with real risk, and community access to necessary legal, financial and other forms of expertise is required.

Aprio: Does IOG observe that lack of staff capacity or budget prevents Indigenous organizations from having strong board governance?

Laura Edgar: There’s a core misconception that large organizations with lots of staff and resources will exhibit stronger governance than smaller boards with simpler governance frameworks. This is not necessarily true. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations can face resource constraints, but more money and staffing don’t necessarily lead to better governance. In fact, we also see small organizations with very strong governance, because the board has a clear understanding of its purpose and collectively goes about fulfilling its roles and responsibilities. Other well-funded organizations, without this clarity, may still struggle with governance.

That said, among Indigenous boards, consensus-decision making approach and the desire to engage multiple voices tend to drive the need for more resources in terms of time and staffing. In the case of joint ventures and public partnerships, the complexities of those arrangements demand that you need access to more expertise and more rigour around governance frameworks and accountabilities.

Aprio: What are the challenges faced by Indigenous organizations seeking to engage directors and stakeholders, and keep them informed and actively participating?

Laura Edgar: First Nations and other indigenous communities share some challenges with other small, rural, sometime remote, communities in Canada when it comes to board recruitment and stakeholder engagement. It’s not always easy to recruit directors to populate multiple boards when the pool of candidates is small. Small communities, where everyone knows one another, may also have an impact on how voices are heard and how decisions are taken. Of course, a fundamental part of boards is that decisions must be taken in the best interests of the organization, and that once decisions are made; the board speaks with one voice.

Barry Christoff: In communities with active economic development broad consultation processes may be demanded and more engagement needed than for a typical board process. For example, a community in BC was undertaking a process to consider a development of high-rise buildings and a seaport. There were stakeholders to identify, inform, and keep participating in the process. With engagement being so important, we’re seeing a trend towards using technology to engage people and keep them continuously informed. The community also utilized traditional means, such as family suppers, that allows for discussion on decisions that affect the whole community.

Aprio: Are you seeing technology supporting Indigenous governance?

Barry Christoff: There is room for technology to aid in governance. Slightly over 50% of First Nation members live off reserve and technology could help connect with this group. As well, with cloud applications there is an opportunity for Indigenous communities to use and connect with online systems as long as there’s high-speed Internet connectivity.

The next generation of Indigenous leaders technology expectations will put more pressure on technology adoption. As such, interactive websites are important for providing timely access to information, well in advance of meetings and decisions. As well, social media is also vital for communication, and Facebook Canada has indicated that the Indigenous population is one of the most highly represented populations on Facebook. Another exciting development underway is the development of online communities for nation-to-nation relationships where members of various Indigenous populations come together online to share ideas.

Aprio: Do you see more First Nations and Indigenous organizations using board portal software to ensure strong governance on their boards?

Laura Edgar: Board portals that put all information securely in one place, and ensure same-time access for directors, are increasingly being utilized by boards. They are valuable especially to boards that require frequent information access and meet often. As organizations move to online systems, some are even providing iPads to ensure access. When I’m training a board of directors I often ask, “Do you have crisis management in place? How could you access core documents in time of emergency, flood or fire?” Having information in a portal, and in the cloud would be a safeguard. But for a fair number of Indigenous organizations, as well as across the not for profit sector more generally, going with paper, or sending out board packages by email, is still common. I see this changing as organizations move to recruit the ‘next generation’ of younger directors who have very different expectations about how they access information and how they engage.

Aprio: What advice do you provide to Indigenous organizations seeking to make governance both practical and affordable?

Laura Edgar: Good governance principles guide our work. We consider an organization’s history, culture, context and purpose then apply proven principles to frame out a governance approach appropriate for the size and purpose of an organization. Commonly with Indigenous organizations, our role is to try and help figure out a governance approach that works to balance a consensus orientation and the need for many voices, with the need for timely decisions. Sometimes those two requirements can work against each other. We bring it back to principles and help identify ways to make it work. For example, is an advisory body needed as a method to seek multiple voices? How can the AGM best be used to engage the community? How can we structure effective decision-making when we know perspectives and needs will be diverse?

Aprio: What’s your outlook on Indigenous governance needs in the years ahead?

Barry Christoff: It is a time of growth for Indigenous governance. Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that Canada needs a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Aboriginal communities. More Indigenous communities are looking towards self-government, and are looking to set up health boards, economic boards and other organizations. Economic development is also spurring the need for increased governance to support joint ventures, facilitate collaboration between multiple First Nations, and with private businesses.

As the number of Indigenous organizations increases along with more complex and specialized governance practices the number of and experienced directors and leaders will grow. As such, there will be cross pollination in terms of directors and leaders moving to create other new institutions like the BC health authorities, other economic boards, and so on. The Institute on Governance looks forward to supporting the leadership of these new Indigenous organizations. Strong leadership and governance may be vital for establishing a constructive relationship between governments, private business and Indigenous populations.


About the Experts

Barry Christoff
VP-Indigenous Governance, Institute on Governance
Barry Christoff is Vice-President of Indigenous Governance for the Institute on Governance (IOG). As a member of Saulteau First Nations in northeastern British Columbia, and a lawyer who has focused his career on joint First Nation and federal government initiatives, Barry is aware that listening, finding safe zones, and being respectful may assist in providing a foundation for positive change. (Read full bio)

Laura Edgar
VP-Board & Organizational Governance, Institute on Governance
Laura leads the Institute’s work on board and organizational governance, including providing advisory services related to roles, responsibilities and functioning of boards of directors, strategic planning, member engagement and governance assessments. She also provides tailored learning programs on request. She has a strong professional and academic background in the governance of public purpose organizations, indigenous governance, business management, adult education, and international programming. (Read full bio)

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