Every year the federal government transfers $7.7 billion to aboriginal organizations to provide services and leadership to their people. Most of the money goes to Canada’s 600 First Nations.
Until last year, the only requirement Ottawa imposed on these payments was that First Nations had to provide an audited financial statement of their expenditures to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Taxpayers never saw these documents. Neither did rank-and-file members of many First Nations.
That changed on March 27, 2013, when the Harper government won final approval for the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. The legislation required all First Nations receiving federal funds to disclose publicly their spending, including the remuneration and expenses of the chief and councillors. The deadline for filing comprehensive financial statements was Tuesday.
A small minority complied. This week, the department posted a first group of financial statements from First Nations online. Mostly, they bore little resemblance to the accounts of exorbitant salaries and benefits circulated by frequent critics of First Nations financing, such Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
But there’s at least one that will raise serious questions. One chief in British Columbia, Ron Giesbrecht of the Kwikwetlem First Nation near Vancouver, was reported late Thursday to have received $914,219 tax free last year – the equivalent of $1.6 million for someone paying income tax. That to oversee a band with just 81 members.
A full explanation for that figure is needed without delay. Otherwise, based on the 3-per-cent sample available, the numbers don’t look outlandish. The chiefs’ salaries range from $20,000 to $120,000 – comparable to what municipal councillors make in all but Canada’s biggest cities.
Another eyebrow-raising disclosure was that John Thunder, the controversial chief of the 125-member Buffalo Point First Nation in Manitoba, was paid $129,318 last year. He claimed this was a bargain, considering his ground-breaking leadership. “I have created an economy on our nation that is worth more than anything we will ever receive from them,” he told the Star.
Whether Thunder is a bargain or an opportunist, his pay and benefits are in the same ballpark as those of mid-level civil servants and heads of non-profit organizations.
What is troubling is the chiefs’ abysmal compliance rate. It is unclear when – indeed whether – the remaining 80 per cent intend to post their financial statements. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who got into a nasty clash with the Assembly of First Nations in May over his government’s plan to revamp aboriginal education, declined to comment on the low response rate.
Ghislain Picard, interim chief of the dysfunctional council of chiefs, said First Nations leader were prepared to be transparent and accountable, but they reject the government’s heavy-handed approach. “It is sad that this government was not willing at the outset to work things out.” In fairness to the government, those negotiations would have dragged on for years.
Picard may be right that the Tories are motivated by a desire to bring public opprobrium on native chiefs. That would be consistent with the tactics they have used on other groups that refused to bend to their will. But the fact remains that aboriginal chiefs have been entrusted by the government with billions of public dollars. Canadians have a right to see how that money is being used, especially in light of the substandard services and chronic poverty in many First Nations communities.
Valcourt was wise not to fly off the handle this week. The legislation is still in its early days. Some First Nations don’t have Internet access. Others may not understand what is required. But if the response rate does not improve soon, he may need to send the chiefs a sharp reminder that they are contravening the law.
Ottawa is not asking First Nations to meet a higher standard than any other public official in Canada. Accountability to those who pay the bills is a fundamental tenet of democracy. First Nations chiefs can no longer expect to escape scrutiny.