Friday, September 19, 2014
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First Nations on way to transparency

Good government equals improved socio-economic standing

By Joseph Quesnel, Frontier Centre

For the sake of citizens living on Manitoba First Nations, the federal government is justified in releasing audits of Manitoba bands. If anything, they at least create transparency in band dealings.

Three Manitoba First Nations are among seven bands identified as having questionable spending in a series of audits released to the public.

In Manitoba, reports on all three Manitoba bands audited identified numerous "weaknesses with governance, expenditure oversight and financial management."

Aboriginal Affairs posted 11 recipient audit reports online, with more reports expected to come.

The three Manitoba bands identified were Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, Mosakahiken Cree Nation, and Sayisi Dene First Nation. Of the three, Roseau River performed the best in the audits.

First Nations transparency and financial management are hot button issues right now, especially given the passage of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. That piece of legislation requires bands to post salaries of band chief and councillor, as well as audit reports.

For years, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy has called upon First Nations communities to be more transparent in all their dealings and to follow good financial management practices. International data points to a clear connection between good governance and improved socio-economic standing. Every year, the Frontier Centre has released an Aboriginal Governance Index (AGI), which gauges the opinions of average First Nations about quality of governance and services. In our surveying, we ask questions about the level of transparency on the First Nation. We asked questions of more than 3,000 average First Nations in other 30 communities across the three Prairie provinces.

In order for residents to be engaged in decision-making in local communities and to feel confident that decisions are made fairly and money is spent wisely, it is crucially important for band councils to be transparent. Information concerning council meetings, major decisions and financial records should be easily available to anybody who wishes to see them.

As was the case in the last AGI, the responses to our survey questions about transparency were highly varied. Some respondents reported good access to information about band council activities, while others reported severely restricted access. For example, when we asked whether everyone who lives on the reserve is allowed to find out what decisions have been recently made by council, slightly fewer than one-third of respondents said "definitely, yes." Just under 20% provided an answer at the opposite end of the spectrum, saying individuals are "definitely not" able to gain access to information about recent council decisions. Approximately one-quarter of respondents provided an answer precisely in the middle of the 7-point scale,

suggesting either no opinion or some uncertainty about the answer to the question. It is encouraging that more respondents think they are able to access information than think it is impossible to access it, but further work needs to be done to ensure residents are confident in their ability to monitor the actions of their governments.

These audits demonstrate why it is so important for government to be as transparent as possible.

The findings concluded with recommendations, such as holding regular meetings, and documentation of minutes at meetings. The report also stated that band councils should regularly present annual budgets and audited financial statements to band members.

-- Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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