Friday, September 19, 2014
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Simons: Controversial new law shines harsh light on First Nations finances

By Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - Joe Pastion, 41, is chief of the Dene Tha’ First Nation. The band, in the far northwest corner of the province, 555 kilometres north of Grande Prairie, has a registered population of 2,911.

According to audited statements filed with the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, the chief of the Dene Tha’ earns about $88,000 a year, plus expenses. Band councillors get paid a base salary of $60,000. Last year their expenses ranged from a low of $3,500 to a high of $29,000. That may not sound very exciting. But the simple fact that we know it is revolutionary.

Under the terms of Ottawa’s controversial new First Nations Financial Transparency Act, every First Nation in Canada was required to file an audited statement and schedule of salaries for elected officials by midnight this past Tuesday. As of early afternoon Wednesday, you could only find filings from fewer than a dozen of Alberta’s 45 First Nations on the website. Aboriginal Affairs says it may take more than a week to get all the results up online. Yet what’s there already makes fascinating reading.

Pastion tells me he opposes the new legislation. He and his colleagues had nothing to hide, he says, they have long made their financial statements public to their whole community. He thinks this act is short-term political hype, a way for the Harper government to distract from the social turmoil and real problems on reserves.

“If you look at the money we get, it’s nothing compared to what they get in the Senate, or what senior bureaucrats get.”

I ask him to guess the salaries of some of his fellow chiefs.

I read out some numbers.

An audible gasp.

“Holy smokes,” he mutters.

And there, in a nutshell, you have everything that’s wrong and everything right, about the Transparency Act. The act, brainchild of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, insinuates that First Nations can’t be trusted to manage their own money and be accountable to their own members. Given the latest relevations about Mike Duffy, not to mention Alison Redford, that paternalism might well gall.

But while you can fault the government for its neo-colonial rhetoric, this act is vital and long overdue. Now, for the first time, First Nations citizens will enjoy the rights of every other Canadian — to hold their own elected officials to account. They’ll have easy public access to the audited statements and salary reports not just for their own First Nation, but for their neighbours. They’ll be able to compare data and management practices, to ask hard questions about whether their local leaders are providing them with value for money.

Here are a few of the numbers that shocked a moderately-paid chief like Pastion.

The Peerless Trout First Nation, near Peerless Lake, has a registered population of just 864. But its chief, James Alook, received $205,937 in salary and expenses last year, including $109,998 for travel.

The O’Chiese First Nation, near Rocky Mountain House, has a population of 1,270. Last year, it paid Chief Darren Whitford, a base salary of $164,453, with another $100,778 for travel and personal expense, for a total compensation package of $265,231.

(Neither Alook nor Whitford was available for comment Wednesday.)

Those kinds of compensation packages make it seems almost unexceptional that the Samson First Nation, with a population of 8,000, paid its councillors a mere $150,000 to $190,000 a year, with $6,000 for expenses.

Yet it’s important to note the huge disparities, to point out that other bands such as the Piikani or Tallcree paid salaries in the $45,000 to $70,000 range.

In the end, though, all chiefs and councils are now responsible to their own band members. Over the next days and weeks as the statements are posted it will be easy enough to highlight the most egregious examples. But this legislation will have failed if it only prompts external criticism and buttresses lazy stereotypes. If this law works as it should, it will empower aboriginal Canadians by exposing inequities, giving them the chance to root out cronyism and corruption where they find it, and the chance discover what’s working well on other reserves; to learn from one another.

Being a good First Nations leader is one of the hardest jobs in Canada. We shouldn’t use this legislation to undermine good people striving to serve their communities. We should use it, instead, to give them the tools and the moral authority they need, to do their hard job better.

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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