Thursday, September 18, 2014
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All politicians, including aboriginal leaders, need scrutiny

By: Colin Craig

Winnipeg Free Press

Recent columns in the Winnipeg Free Press (Attacking chiefs mindless, Aug. 2) and (Chiefs don't answer to Ottawa, Aug. 7) have criticized the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and our involvement in the new First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

 

A few inaccuracies deserve to be cleared up.

First, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation started calling for the federal government to post the salaries of aboriginal chiefs and councillors online (as well as band financial statements) back in 2009. We did so for a simple reason -- cries from grassroots band members on reserves.

Grassroots band members would routinely tell us that they had trouble getting access to basic financial information such as their chief and council's pay. Those in media know this is a concern on many reserves as we've seen them copied on many of the same emails and letters that we receive from whistleblowers. Sadly, too often those who ask questions on reserves can be labeled as troublemakers by elites in their communities and can face repercussions for daring to speak out.

That's not to say all aboriginal politicians are crooked or unethical; far from it. We've said countless times over the years there are thousands of aboriginal politicians in Canada and you're going to find some who are good, honest people and some with not-so-pure intentions. It's the same for municipal, provincial and federal politicians.

However, a difference with First Nations politicians is that many people off-reserve shy away from investigating or critiquing those politicians' decisions. They fear being called racist for daring to question how tax dollars are spent. Aboriginal Canadians deserve to have their locally elected politicians receive the same scrutiny as other politicians. But sadly, too many people on reserves have told us "no one will listen."

As for the funds bands receive; we are in fact talking about tax dollars - billions of them. According to the Fraser Institute, federal and provincial governments spent over $11 billion on programs geared to aboriginal people in 2011-12; most of those dollars were transferred to reserves.

Some of those dollars fulfill treaty obligations while a significant amount does not. For example, no treaty ever mentioned funding for building homes, hockey rinks or chief and council pay, to name a few. But yes, the taxpayer has footed the bill for many of those expenses in the past.

A concern raised in both columns about the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) is that we fixate on the outlandish pay examples involving aboriginal politicians -- like the B.C. chief who made the equivalent of $1.6 million last year.

Yet, ironically, the media join us in focusing on outlandish examples involving off reserve politicians too. We all commented on the golden pensions our federal politicians receive or the personal "sky palace" that former Alberta premier Alison Redford was having built on the top floor of a government building in Edmonton. Premier Greg Selinger's pay never makes the front page because it's just not seen as alarming.

Our hope is always that by bringing the alarming matters to light, something can be done to rectify the situation or prevent it from happening again.

Naturally, we hope for the same with aboriginal politicians. We focus on the million-dollar chief because his compensation was clearly outrageous and a questionable use of band funds (some of which come from the federal government). Just ask those in his community who are now trying to oust him. But just as important, those on reserves now have more information to make informed decisions about their elected officials.

Before the new law came into being, some whistleblowers leaked band council salaries and the CTF received some incomplete pay information from the government. After controversial pay information hit the media, several band councils scaled back their pay. Just look at the Peguis reserve (Manitoba), Standing Buffalo (Saskatchewan) and Glooscap (Nova Scotia) to name a few. Thus, scrutiny and transparency helped the situation.

One thing is clear. Whether we're talking about aboriginal politicians or politicians off reserve, their activities deserve to be watchdogged. We'll be doing our part, regardless of what the critics say.

Colin Craig is prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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