“When are we going to get to the point where we respect First Nations?” was a comment recently made by AFN regional Chief Mike Smith for the Yukon to Global. Well, AFN regional chief Mike Smith, respect is a two-way street.
Smith was speaking to media as five Canadian First Nations took the federal government to court over the C27 law, which is usually referred to as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. These First Nations claim the transparency act is endangering their business secrets and could destroy band-owned businesses.
In essence the act impels each First Nation to submit an audited consolidated financial statement and a list of the chief and council’s pay, including expenses. Many are the rumours, legends and stories of ridiculously high council salaries while rank and file band members live in poverty on the reserve.
That bill was passed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in the wake of a number of revelations on the reserve, such as the astronomical salary and payments to Shuswap First Nation Chief Paul Sam, 80. It was widely reported last fall that Sam “gets a tax-free salary that has averaged $264,000 over (a four year) period to run a tiny reserve near Invermere, a resort community near the Alberta border,” noted the National Post based on information that was actually provided by members of that band. Even better was the revelation that Sam’s son, Dean Martin, was paid an average annual salary of $536,000 over the same time period to manage band-owned companies. Yes, you saw that figure correctly. Over half a million dollars on average per year. In comparison, Harper makes a bit over $300,000 a year. That band is said to have only 267 members and only 87 who actually live on the reserve. By the way, it’s not unusual for a First nations chief to live somewhere other than the reserve. Strange but true.
Stepping into the world of First Nations protests against the federal government is usually a no win situation. The aboriginal politicians tend to use the same recipe of denial sprinkled with outrage: how dare these Ottawa politicians try to control the finances, business secrets etc. of the First Nations people while the more extreme members of the aboriginal community accuse critics of blatant racism. Those people claim that the only reason anyone wants financial accountability on First Nations reserves is because they hate Indians.
That’s not true, and it’s an insult to anyone with average and above intelligence. Most of the serious criticism of First Nations politics, nepotism and political corruption on reserves comes from First nations band members themselves who live with their families in poverty and are sick and tired of seeing corruption on their reserve and nothing being done about it.
This writer, while working in a different community, was contacted multiple times by band members from multiple First nations reserves in that area claiming corruption, with evidence to back it up. For example, one band in question was obligated to pay members’ utility bills; no band member got a power or gas bill in the mail. Rather, the band office got the bill and was obligated to pay it on behalf of its members.
It turns out band members were getting “cut off” notices from utility companies; their bills hadn’t been paid, and the companies were cutting off people’s services until the debts were cleared up. One band member, a lady with six children, was getting her utilities cut off and would have no way to cook for her children. Phone calls to the band office went unreturned, both from the media and from band members.
Transfer payments from the federal government to the First Nation in question were made, meaning the money to pay the utility bills was sent. But the bills were unpaid. So where is the money?
This is the issue at the heart of C27. Politicians paid with tax dollars are obligated to explain what they’re being paid and why, and it wasn’t thought up to exclusively attack aboriginal politicians: this is the same issue that destroyed Allison Redford’s political career. The question of whether band-owned businesses are threatened by the financial transparency act is moot. Other Canadian businesses, for example, report details to Revenue Canada without harm while public servants report their incomes on sunshine lists and the sun still comes up the next day.
Close examination of this problem is long overdue.
The issue of political corruption and fraud on First Nations reserves has to be dealt with, and if it exists, which the evidence above certainly seems to suggest it does, those few or many, as the case may be, who are lining their own pockets at the expense of their own people must be held accountable.
Or, at the very least, they should be identified.