Opinion: First Nations spending accountability is essential

It’s distressing that Indigenous activist Harrison Thunderchild has been forced to go to court to make leaders of Saskatchewan’s Thunderchild First Nation disclose expenditures.

Parliament passed the First Nations Financial Transparency Act in 2013, when the Conservatives were in power. The law made chief and band council salaries and benefits public information, as well as the First Nations’ audited financial statements. As a result, First Nations residents (and other Canadians) were guaranteed to have information that Canadians in other communities take for granted.

When the Liberals came to power in 2015, they stopped enforcing the act. That was a huge step backwards given all the work many Indigenous people put into fighting for this bill, and the number of Canadians in general who support it.

When the Indigenous and Northern Affairs minister stopped enforcing the act in December 2015 compliance with the act was about 90 per cent – it has since dropped to about 80 per cent.

For years, I was lead researcher on the Frontier Centre’s Aboriginal Governance Index, an annual barometer of the perceptions of the quality of governance and services on First Nation reserves across the Prairies.

Our largely First Nation staff travelled to well over 100 communities and surveyed thousands of people. We also spoke to hundreds of individuals in those communities. We heard scores of stories about financial mismanagement and unaccountable behaviour at many bands.

Despite the claims by many First Nation supporters that this information is readily available, our respondents told a different story – often a story of frustration and disappointment in trying to access basic information about their bands.

In November 2012, I testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs about Bill C-27, the proposed First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

I testified that 77 per cent of the Prairie First Nation members surveyed agreed that salary information for elected officials should be made public and be accessible. However, 25 per cent sadly reported that this information was not available.

Of course, quite a few First Nation leaders have adopted open-book policies on financial information. The Frontier Centre project always highlighted such communities. But our research showed that Indigenous communities expect their leaders to be open to them, just like they expect Indigenous Affairs to be accountable to First Nations.

Indigenous leaders who resist transparency divide their membership by claiming that this sort of commonplace transparency is somehow anti-First Nation or an infringement on Indigenous self-government.

Thunderchild disagrees. “Accountability and transparency are principles of leadership for our people that were passed down to me from my father and grandfathers. When our leaders don’t tell grassroots band members what’s happening with the community’s money, they’re turning their backs on our heritage.”

In February 2016, the Public Policy Forum – an Ottawa-based think-tank – released a report entitled Improving Access to Capital for Canada’s First Nations Communities. It said: “The real or perceived lack of public sector transparency acts as a barrier to investment. This is true for all governments. However, First Nation communities have far fewer resources to ensure compliance with high governance standards.”

The report concluded that, “Improving transparency and accountability within First Nation governments is essential for attracting outside investment.” Forward-looking Indigenous governments realize that accountability and transparency are the only ways to improved First Nations’ social and economic conditions.

All Canadian First Nations should follow the lead of Atlantic First Nations, which proudly proclaim that all Atlantic bands are compliant with this legislation. They realized it was a selling feature for investment in their lands.

Recalcitrant First Nation governments need to get on board. And the federal government needs to resume enforcement of this important law.

Troy Media columnist Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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