Stung by allegations of inflated pay, native chiefs to open their books

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/politics
Published Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010.   Bill Curry, Ottawa

Under fire over revelations that some of them are paid better than provincial premiers, Canada’s native chiefs are poised to make an unprecedented commitment to open their books.

The more than 600 chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations are expected to adopt a resolution next week promising to “lead by example” through the clear and timely release of audits, public accounts, salaries, honorariums and expenses of their chiefs and council.

The resolution also calls on the Harper government to work with native leaders to help develop an independent oversight office – either a native ombudsperson or Auditor-General.

The push for full disclosure is in response to a series of stories generated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation alleging that hundreds of chiefs and councillors are being paid the equivalent of $100,000 or more and that more than 200 are paid more than their respective premiers.

The AFN disputes these figures, arguing that the taxpayers group is creating alarm with inflated numbers by including travel costs and per diems as salary. The issue is also being raised by Conservative MP Kelly Block, who introduced a private member’s bill this fall that would require chiefs and councillors to publicly disclose salaries and expenses.

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo acknowledged in an interview that many chiefs have come to the conclusion that the best way to respond to the controversy is to provide full disclosure.

“I’ve had a good number of calls from chiefs saying, ‘You know, there’s every reason why we should just confront this directly,’ and they will be bringing a resolution forward,” he said. “In speaking with chiefs, there’s a great concern that the public discussion, the information that’s come out of the [Canadian Taxpayers Federation], has really painted all chiefs with a broad brush. It just isn’t true that all 633 chiefs are corrupt or are receiving pay that isn’t acceptable or are not accountable to their citizens and their communities. It’s just simply not the case.”

Mr. Atleo said many chiefs are already making such information public. He also noted that the AFN has advocated a native ombudsperson and/or Auditor-General since 2006, but the federal government has not been interested.

Reached for comment, the head of the taxpayers federation, Kevin Gaudet, said the AFN resolution sounds like “great news.”

“If that means going forward they’re going to commit to make the things public that we’ve been calling for, wonderful. I don’t see a downside to that,” he said. “Transparency breeds accountability and that’s a wonderful thing. …The campaign we’ve advocated has been on behalf of grassroots aboriginals themselves, so good for its leadership if it’s going to follow through on what its membership has been seeking.”

Mr. Atleo said the AFN motion does not mean chiefs will support Ms. Block’s private member’s bill, which the motion dismisses as “unnecessary and heavy-handed.”

Moved by Grand Chief Doug Kelly of B.C.’s Soowahlie First Nation, the draft motion commits chiefs and council to release audits, public accounts, salaries, honorariums and expenses and to ensure “information about community finances and decision-making is easily accessible, and available via the Internet where applicable.”

The resolution will be debated and voted on at the AFN’s annual general assembly next week at the Hilton Lac Leamy in Gatineau. Auditor-General Sheila Fraser is scheduled to speak at the assembly.

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