The federal government spends almost $12 billion annually on aboriginal matters, with much of it transferred to First Nations for governance, education, infrastructure and income assistance.
That figure doesn’t include spending by other levels of government, but given the amount of just federal tax dollars at stake Ottawa’s new legislation to require transparency and accountability on reserves makes eminent sense.
Under the just-tabled Bill C-27, reserves would be required to regularly publish audited financial statements. They will also need to make public the salaries and expense account reimbursements paid to reserve politicians.
Earlier this year, when member of Parliament Kelly Block introduced a similar private member’s bill (upon which the new government bill was based), some First Nations chiefs tried to change the subject.
The best example was Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo. In March, Atleo argued that Block’s bill ignored important issues. He cited how the federal government has made only limited progress in carrying out education programs for reserve-based students.
Bringing up education on reserves — or water, which is also flagged on occasion — doesn’t change how those services often suffer precisely because of how some First Nations leaders spend public money: on unreasonable salaries and unjustifiable expenses, given the small populations of most reserves.
To use one example, in 2008/09, a Manitoba band council’s four positions at the Ochi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation (Crane River) reserve garnered salaries that ranged from the taxable equivalent of $106,000 to $144,000.
That’s to govern a community of 535 people.
That example, and others that originally spurred Ottawa’s transparency legislation, came from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
The CTF showed 600 chiefs earned more than $100,000 in 2008/09; many earned more than provincial premiers while 50 chiefs earned the same or more than the prime minister, when the tax-free aspect of reserve salaries was calculated (a smaller tax-free income can easily equal or surpass a much larger income that is taxed by various levels of government).
In response, the Assembly of First Nations argued the CTF numbers (obtained through Access to Information) included travel expenses and per diems. The AFN also claimed that “only” 21 chiefs earned more than premiers and that no one earned more than the prime minister.
But in the Crane River example, the average council position incurred $23,210 in travel expenses in addition to the high salaries. The AFN also overlooked honorariums and other remuneration paid to First Nations chiefs, amounts that must also factor into any comparison with the prime minister and premiers.
Canada’s taxpayers off and on-reserve should side with the official government numbers obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, especially given Chief Atleo’s other attempt to criticize attempts to introduce more accountability for reserve governments. Back in the spring, Atleo asserted that First Nations communities do want to hold their own governments accountable. He said it was just that federal legislation was “another example of giving greater power and responsibility to the Minister of Indian Affairs. What we want to do is give more power to the people.”
To be sure, plenty of people on reserves desire to hold reserve governments accountable. For example, Chief Darcy Bear of Saskatchewan’s Whitecap Dakota First Nation has welcomed the new legislation and asserts it means more accountability.
But Atleo’s logic is akin to a corporate CEO who argues federal laws that require annual financial reports and proper accounting give greater power to the Finance Minister instead of to shareholders.
Nonsense. What such laws do, whether vis-à-vis business or First Nation governments, is require that shareholders and residents be given transparency and actual hard numbers.
The AFN has argued the average of a chief’s salary across Canada is modest. They’ve tossed around the figure of “just” $36,845. If that sounds reasonable, think again.
It’s not so reasonable considering the small populations of most reserves. According to the 2006 census, even the largest reserve in the country, Ontario’s Six Nations of the Grand River, had just 22,649 people. Nationally, more than 82 per cent of reserves contained fewer than 1,000 people.
Thus, salaries and expense account reimbursements on reserves should parallel off-reserve other hamlets, villages and small cities of similar size.
The department of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs is itself subject to proactive disclosure. The minister’s salary is public, as are department travel expenses and contract costs. Similar transparency is long overdue for First Nations politicians.
Mark Milke is a Senior Fellow with the Fraser Institute and the author of several studies on Aboriginal issues.