An accountable act

TorontoSun.com – opinion – Bill C-27 aims to shine light on spending by ‘enhancing the financial accountability of First Nations’
First Posted: Saturday, May 05, 2012.   By Adrienne Batra, Toronto Sun

The plight of residents living on the Attawapiskat reserve began long before news broke last year that some band members were living in conditions resembling a war zone.

Between the Chief, her Council (the band has received over $90 million since 2006) and the federal government, which handled the crisis poorly from the beginning, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this unacceptable situation.

But the root of the problem, an all too familiar one on reserves across Canada, begins and ends with the Indian Act.

It’s a paternalistic document and an abject failure that denies natives basic property rights, thereby keeping them in a cycle of poverty.

In 1969, an infamous “White Paper”, written by then Indian affairs minister Jean Chretien for the Trudeau government, recommended abolishing the Indian Act.

This suggestion was met with a resounding “no” from the native leadership of the time.

Arguably, one of the most vocal opponents was Harold Cardinal, who wrote in his book, The Unjust Society, a response to the paper: “In spite of all government attempts to convince Indians to accept the white paper, their efforts will fail, because Indians understand that the path outlined by the Department of Indian Affairs through its mouthpiece, the Honourable Mr. Chretien, leads directly to cultural genocide. We will not walk this path.”

In 2012, Cardinal’s words would be out of step with many present-day native leaders, some of whom have made impassioned pleas for the abolition of the Act.

Unfortunately, the Conservative government, like the Liberal government before it, hasn’t shown a willingness to do this.

Instead, it has chosen to introduce Bill C-27, “An act to enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations.” Although this bill on its own won’t undo the damage of the Indian Act, it helps to address one of the fundamental problems on many native reserves today — a lack of accountability for taxpayers’ dollars spent.

It’s worth noting this bill could also apply to every government department.

Brought forward by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, the stated purpose of the legislation, which is quietly making its way through Parliament, is to “enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations by requiring the preparation and public disclosure of their audited consolidated financial statements and of the schedules of remuneration paid by a First Nation or by any entity that it controls, as the case may be, to its chief and each of its councillors, acting in their capacity as such and in any other capacity, including their personal capacity.” The average on-reserve population is almost 1,200 residents.

Over $7 billion is spent annually on “transfers” to reserves across the country.

While it comes as no surprise to those living on reserves, there is little or no disclosure of where this money has been spent.

Among the most egregious controversies, one chief received a salary of over $970,000 ­tax-free on a reserve in Atlantic Canada where there were 304 residents.

Other reserve politicians were paid more than provincial premiers and the prime minister.

To be sure, many reserves have done extremely well with economic development initiatives, while ensuring a decent standard of living for their residents.

This legislation is meant to deal with the worst of the worst, so individual band members can ask their leaders where the money went when the water isn’t running, the heat isn’t turned on, or the school isn’t being built.

It’s a direct way of empowering natives to question their leaders, without fear of reprisal.

It’s shocking to learn when South Africa was establishing its system of apartheid, it based it on the model Canada had established with our reserve system — nothing of which to be proud.

Although the Harper government won’t dismantle this system entirely, it deserves credit for taking steps to making it more accountable to those who live within it.

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