Five Things to Know about the big chief paycheques on native reserves

Posted on November 24, 2010 in Equality Debates

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November 24, 2010.   Kevin Libin

One — The bill

Conservative MP Kelly Block’s pending private member’s bill that aims to require aboriginal chiefs to publicly disclose their salaries may not change the way many First Nations are governed.

As appalled as many people may be when chiefs help themselves to colossal paycheques, the reality is there is frequently a widespread consensus in a lot of native communities that chiefs are entitled to make their own rules.

More than a decade ago, the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples recognized that because most reserves are so small, dominated by larger families, the system naturally tends toward oligarchy, where two or three large clans take turns running things, enriching themselves and their friends and family, before eventually being exiled by another powerful clan.

“There’s no protection [from] the Elections Act. There’s nothing to prevent outright promises of jobs, payoffs, kickbacks, the situation is just hugely corrupt,” says John Reilly, author of Bad Medicine: A Judge’s Struggle for Justice in a First Nations Community, an account of his years in an Alberta court dealing with the social distress emanating from the relatively wealthy Stoney Nakoda Nation nearby. Recall that when Indian Affairs conducted a poll of First Nations members in 2003, only 51% supported the federal government’s proposal, via Bill C-7, to improve on-reserve accountability; 37% said they were satisfied with their band’s governance — a number that aboriginal author and reform advocate Calvin Helin notes “accords roughly with the number of family members that Chief and councils are likely to have in a community.”

Two — Reaction

Even if a majority of members are outraged at their chief’s salary, they won’t necessarily protest.

When Ottawa hands over block funding to band councils, it’s really handing over power: the power to control who gets jobs, who gets housing, whose kids get money for college. Staying on the administration’s good side is a common survival strategy for many individual First Nations members. When Judge Reilly tried ordering a Crown investigation into the Stoney reserve in 1997, he commented “I have been told over and over again that people are afraid to participate because of repercussions … Residents of the reserve describe it to me as a ‘prison without bars.’” As Jean Allard, the former Manitoba MLA and former leader of the oldest Métis organizations in Canada, notes “There is no mechanism within the system that allows grassroots Indians to exert their rights as Canadians in a democratic country.” Meantime, some bands are ruled by a hereditary chief, or by band custom (where elections are spotty).

Three — Secrecy

Even if Ms. Block’s bill passes, Canadians — and First Nations people — still won’t always know what chiefs are raking in.

If it’s passed, Ms. Block’s private member’s bill, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, will go some distance to shedding light on the traditionally concealed payrolls of First Nations. But it can focus only on the money chiefs pay themselves out of federal funds. On many reserves, chiefs’ salaries come, also, out of businesses that are owned and operated by the band. Chief Harry Sharphead of Alberta’s Enoch Cree First Nation may award himself the equivalent of a $275,000 off-reserve salary annually — about 30% more than the provincial premier, as the CTF revealed in April—but the Enoch Cree own a thriving casino, and a golf course, as well as oil interests and retail outlets, from which Mr. Sharphead draws some of that wage. A 1988 court case ruled that any records that reveal details of income earned from proprietary band-owned businesses are protected by privacy legislation—at least until some government cares to take a run at legislating otherwise.

Four — The Model

Chiefs that champion transparency and good governance aren’t particularly keen on sharing their salaries with the outside world, either.

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C. is frequently held up as a model of good reserve management: it’s been 15 years since that band, thanks in large part to his leadership, began earning more on its own, through its businesses, than it collected in federal transfers. Every one of the roughly 450 members gets an annual dividend from the profits earned off Osoyoos’s businesses, which include a winery, hotel, golf course, RV park and restaurants. But even the iconoclastically reform-minded and fiscally vigilant Mr. Louie discloses his salary only to band members, not the Canadian public.

There is, generally, a sense among natives—often understandable given their history—that their “dirty laundry” is their business, and not that of non-natives, says Albert Howard, co-author of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry. It’s the same “us against them” instinct, he says, that often results in First Nation communities closing rank and refusing to cooperate with police after a murder. “They say ‘we don’t do that, we settle these things among ourselves,” he says. The trouble is, he notes, is that such things rarely get settled.

Five — The option

Ottawa always has the option of sending money directly to individual aboriginals, instead of solely through the chief and council.

Mr. Allard may have one of the most interesting ideas for improving First Nations governance that you’ve never heard about. Under early treaties, the Indian Affairs department agreed to pay $5.00 to every individual aboriginal (many bands still celebrate “Treaty Days” where members symbolically line up for their yearly allowance). Mr. Allard’s proposal argues that, adjusting the amount for inflation to a few hundred dollars and sending it directly to First Nations citizens, would liberate them from the dependency on—and, often, subjection from—the chief and council with the purse strings. He writes: “The fundamental virtue of treaty money is that it frees individuals and gives them control over their own lives; something we should want for every man and woman in Canada.”

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One Response to “Five Things to Know about the big chief paycheques on native reserves”

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