ByMike De Souza
OTTAWA—Records showing a native councillor with construction contracts worth $300,000, a chief with a six-figure salary, and an eight member band council each making about $6,500 annually are among dozens of revelations that emerged Tuesday under a new transparency law targeting First Nations leaders.
The information came from multiple First Nations communities across the country trying to meet a deadline set by the new First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which requires them to publish a range of annual business and financial records, including salaries and benefits.
The communities were previously only required to submit these records to the government without sharing them with the public.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada posted some of the records from at least 20 communities on its website Tuesday, including four Ontario First Nations, two from Manitoba, two from Saskatchewan and 10 from British Columbia.
In its own records, the Snuneymuxw First Nation in B.C., revealed that Eric Wesley, a councillor, received $307,201 in contracts for construction related services in the last fiscal year from his own community.
Chief John Thunder of the Buffalo Point First Nation in Manitoba earned $129,398 for the year in salaries and benefits. The community he represents is made up of less than 200 people.
But another community, the Delaware First Nation Morovian of the Thames Band had eight council members who earned an average of less than $6,500 for the year.
The Assembly of First Nations, which represents more than 600 aboriginal communities across the country, said the law was part of a “heavy-handed” Harper government propaganda strategy. The organization noted that the average elected official in aboriginal communities was making about $37,000 per year, based on 2010 estimates.
“Everything points to (an attempt) to build on the propaganda that aboriginal governments are dishonest,” said Ghislain Picard, interim chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in an interview. “That’s the thinking that’s out there and that’s what they keep building on.”
Wesley didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Thunder told the Star in an email, that his salary was a bargain as a chief executive officer who has brought a lot of business to his community.
“I have created an economy on our nation that is worth more than anything we will ever receive from them and (it) is the reason for getting rid of their tainted money,” said Thunder. “I’m the most affordable chief executive officer in Canada, and that does not even include my 30 years of ground breaking leadership.”
Communities that fail to post the information online could be ordered in court to do so, or have their federal funding yanked, based on the new law. The legislation won’t apply to Inuit communities in Nunavut, which fall under a separate agreement with its own accountability rules.
Colin Craig, the prairie region director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the legislation is a long time coming.
He said his organization has pressured the government to change its transparency laws for First Nations since 2009. He said the group was getting complaints at that time from band members who were denied access to the records, despite concerns about waste and excessive salaries.
The new law will allow them to view these records anonymously on the Internet.
“That’s especially important, because a lot of band members have told us they’ve been labelled troublemakers for asking for this information, or else they’ve been bullied for trying to get it,” he said.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt declined to comment Tuesday. His office sent the Star a statement he released last week saying that First Nations, like all Canadians, deserve accountability and transparency from their governments.
But First Nations leaders say the requirements, first proposed as a private member’s bill by Kelly Block, a backbench Conservative MP from Saskatchewan, go beyond disclosure rules for other levels of government.
Thunder suggested that the law could harm his community by giving competitors access to information about its business with the province of Manitoba.
“I don’t have a problem with their money being identified, but this would never fly in the non-aboriginal business world.”
Picard said the government is always trying to find ways to discredit First Nations people in Canada.
“It reflects the ideology of this government since 2006,” said Picard. “They’re already working very hard to find that one community that might be outside what they would (describe) as the model First Nation and then just pass that brush over to all First Nations.”
Transparency by the numbers:
582: The number of First Nations bands that are estimated to be subject to the new transparency and disclosure law.
$6,462: Average honoraria of council members at the Moravian of the Thames First Nation in Ontario.
$36,845: Average salary of elected First Nations official, according to 2010 estimate by the Assembly of First Nations.
$129,318: Total salary and expenses for John Thunder, chief and CEO of Buffalo Point First Nation in Manitoba.
$307,201: Value of contracts for construction related services given to Eric Wesley, a councillor at Snuneymuxw First Nation in British Columbia.