Accountability on reserves

NationalPost.com – Opinion
Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010

Canadian taxpayers pay close to $10-billion a year to finance on-reserve programming for natives. Yet whenever it is proposed that we impose some accountability about how that money is spent, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) –a lobby group representing the interests of native chiefs — complains that its members are being mistreated.

Such was the case with the 2002 First Nations Governance Act, which would have required First Nations to develop the sort of fair voting systems and transparent accounting practices that Canadians living off-reserve take for granted. It was the ultimate common-sense legislation; but because it irked band chiefs –who (like all politicians) would prefer to do things behind closed doors — Paul Martin eventually killed the legislation over the advice of his own Indian Affairs Minister, Robert Nault.

When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took over, they moved to update Canada’s human rights laws by making the Human Rights Act applicable on native reserves. It was an obvious and welcome initiative. Yet it was hampered by the objections of the Liberals and NDP, who copied the AFN line that native chiefs needed more time to bring their practices into compliance with an Act that was passed in 1977. The resulting delay meant that, even in 2010, natives are still waiting to enjoy the full protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This week, the same human-rights double standard was again on public view. Several months ago, the band council of Kahnawake, Que., announced that it would throw non-Mohawk residents out of their reserve –an act of bald-faced racism that would be seen as a hate crime in just about any other Canadian context. This week, its leaders declared they were delaying the expulsion. But that doesn’t mean they’re recanting the policy. Just the opposite: They want to make sure the move to expel white residents is irreversible, so they are creating an in-house justice system that would rubber stamp the reserve’s expulsion order–rather than depend on an outside court, which would surely strike down the move as discriminatory.

Of course, many native leaders say they already are committed to transparency, accountability and good governance. In Friday’s National Post, a letter appeared from Doug Kelly, Grand Chief of the Stolo Tribal Council in British Columbia, who described the accounting safeguards put in place by the First Nations Health Council, of which he is chair. “Our [Stolo] chief and council received an honorarium of $333 each per month,” he wrote of his own reserve. “To do the job of chief, I took on consulting contracts and shared the proceeds with my band for travel and other needs.”

But not all native leaders are such dedicated or selfless public servants. As John Ivison wrote in Thursday’s National Post, one Manitoba reserve paid its chief the equivalent annual salary of $383,000 pre-tax dollars. On the 543-person Piapot reserve in Saskatchewan, the chief has taken home a salary higher than that of the province’s premier. Such stories stir outrage among natives and non-natives alike — yet the only reason we know about them is because of whistle-blowers acting on their own initiative. The chiefs have no legal requirement to disclose their remuneration to Canadians. Even local natives have trouble jumping through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to find such information.

Imagine the outrage if our mayors and premiers followed such practices. So why do we permit this state of affairs on our reserves?

At least one politician is doing something about the issue: Conservative MP Kelly Block has introduced a private member’s bill calling for all First Nations bands to disclose the salaries of chiefs and councillors. Predictably, the AFN has dismissed the bill as “ill-conceived,” and asserted that it betrays “a troubling series of insinuations about First Nations peoples, based on misinformation and lack of understanding.”

But as we see it, the greatest threat to the image of First Nations people isn’t legislation aimed at bringing their communities into line with modern standards of good governance and transparency. Rather, it is the native leaders who, through their own AFN mouthpiece, cynically circle the wagons in defence of their cash and powers.

We urge politicians from all parties to support Ms. Block’s bill. Canadian politicians should support the interests of rank-and-file natives, not those of the native leadership lobby.

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