Transparency?

I don’t think that word means what you think it means. 

We just passed the deadline by which First Nations bands are required by the Federal Government to disclosed audited financial statements. The audited financial statements must be accompanied by a separate schedule which details the salaries for Chiefs and councillors.

There are some good things in the First Nations Transparency Act, like that a member of a First Nation can request copies of audited financial statements, the schedule of remuneration, or the auditor’s written report, and if the First Nation doesn’t provide it, the member can appeal to the courts to have the documents produced. I’d be surprised to learn that mechanism doesn’t already exist, but if it doesn’t, that’s not such a bad thing. “Hey, you’re running the finances for my community; I’d like to see a copy of those finances, your audit, and what salary you’re being paid.” That’s pretty much how any government works.

You can look up any MLA’s salary, or any MP’s salary on public websites. I’m pretty sure your municipal leaders’ salaries are publicly available either in minutes or other public documents. So asking your government leaders to publicly disclose what they’re being paid is nothing new.

But there’s some weird stuff going on here, too. Section 11 directs that any First Nation that doesn’t publish these documents *on the Internet* and that the Internet site must be accessible to the public for at least 10 years. That seems weird to me. Of larger concern, though, is the threat of withholding funding if these documents aren’t filed on the Internet as of, I think, yesterday. (Note: apparently this only applies to “non-essential funding”, so Bands would continue to receive education funding and health funding.) Worse, far, far worse, is that this Act permits the TERMINATION of “any agreement” entered into by the First Nation and the Crown. Termination. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like the Federal Government has passed an Act of legislation that attempts to terminate Treaties.

Not cool, feds. Not cool.

It’s true that all elected officials’ salaries are publicly accessible knowledge. Staff is a different story, and the First Nations Transparency Act does not ask for staff salaries; it just asks for a schedule of remuneration paid to Chiefs and councillors (although, get this – it demands a schedule of salaries paid to Chiefs and councillors “acting in their capacity as such and in any other capacity, including their personal capacity“. [emphasis mine] I assume the point here is that publicly elected officials must report their salaries AS publicly elected officials, regardless of where that money comes from?) Canadian Members of Parliament make $167,000/year (as of April 1, 2015). The Prime Minister makes twice that ($334,800/year). Other Ministers who hold certain cabinet positions have the base salary plus anywhere from $5,900 to $80,000 added to their salaries. Some elected officials also get a car allowance. (Source: http://www.parl.gc.ca Accessed 2 September 2015)

Saskatchewan Members of the Legislative Assembly make a base salary of $94,668 (as of April 1, 2015). The Premier receives an additional $68,852 for a total salary of $163,520. Other MLAs additionally receive anywhere from $7,043 to $55,083, depending on their title/legislative duties. (Source: http://www.legassembly.sk.ca Accessed 2 September 2015)

City of Regina councillors earn $35,697/year; the Mayor of Regina earns $106,680, and there are additional per diems and/or salary additions depending on duties, etc. (Source: https://www.regina.ca/opencms/export/sites/regina.ca/residents/city-administration/.media/pdf/public-accounts-2013.pdf 2 Sept 2015) in Saskatoon, the Mayor receives 85% of a Cabinet Minister’s salary, and that is adjusted annually. Saskatoon councillors receive up to 45% of the Mayor’s salary. I’m sure that in your RM or town, you can find out what you pay your elected officials by requesting that information from the town/RM office if there isn’t a website. Many cities do post either salary ranges or actual salaries for civic positions.

My point here is that it’s certainly nothing new for publicly elected officials to have to disclose to the public (who pays their salaries) what they earn each year by virtue of being elected to office. In fact, that’s a good thing, in my opinion. I would rather have this be a thing than not. But there’s something not quite right about the First Nations Transparency Act.

Maybe it’s that it seems like it’s coming out of the gate rather heavy-handed, saying “we’re assuming you’re not going to do this” (I would be surprised to learn that most FN Bands do not already publicly disclose this kind of information to their members). Maybe it’s that it has this whole “if you don’t do this, consider our Treaty null and void”. Can you imagine the Government of Canada telling the United States that if it didn’t disclose financial information, NAFTA would be called off?

There’s no question at all that First Nations are entitled to the money they receive from the federal government. There’s no question at all that Chiefs and councillors deserve to be paid for the work they do for their band. There is no question at all that those salaries should be publicly accessible information. But there’s still something with the Act that’s not right.

A number of FN Bands have already submitted their data (you can see that information here, and it’s pretty interesting. Salaries range from less than $5,000 annually to over $900,000 – although there’s a pretty big jump between the ~$350,000 range to the over $500,000 range, and only two bands posted salaries over $500,000. The median tax-free salary for a Chief is just over $60,000, according to MacLean’s). A number haven’t yet, and one Band (from Onion Lake) Chief has written the United Nations Committee on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination regarding the termination of funding clauses in the Act. There’s just something here that smacks of trying to offload responsibility somehow. As if the chronic underfunding that most First Nations Bands experience is somehow their own fault because they pay their chiefs and councillors?

Some First Nations Bands are taking part in a lawsuit against the Act, and their claim, in part, is that they already disclose their financial information to the members of their Band, and that they are accountable to their members, who are the people who have elected them. That’s not a bad point to make. I don’t wholly agree. I don’t pay taxes in Saskatoon, but I can find out what Saskatoon councillors earn in a year. I don’t pay taxes in the RM of Fertile Valley, but because their elected officials receive *public money*, I can access that information. I don’t see any difference with First Nations’ elected officials.

But what I *do* have a problem with is the Federal Government threatening to withdraw (and, as far as I know, actually withdrawing) federal funding. What I *do* have a problem with is the wording of this Act seems to try to terminate Treaties. You can’t DO that. Our Treaties were signed *in perpetuity*. That means forever. It doesn’t mean ‘forever until it becomes inconvenient for you’. It doesn’t mean ‘for a limited time only’. It doesn’t mean ‘until our OTHER assimilation policies basically wipe out your entire culture’. It means forever. This Act should never have passed with that clause in it, unless I’m misreading it (which I could very well be).

So while I LIKE that Chiefs’ and councillors’ salaries are publicly disclosed under this Act (I suspect most of them already were), I also recognize that the details not released as part of this information, without context, could cause harm. I understand that there may be issues of confidentiality between Bands and other businesses who may not want their information disclosed to the federal government. I’m worried that this Act will be used to force FN Bands to disclose investment/revenue information from non-federal funds – now, the company I work for receives federal funds. It also receives provincial and private funding. We are required to report, in our annual audited financial statements, a schedule of all revenue received, including donations. So on one hand, that’s nothing new. But on the other hand, my company isn’t responsible for the lives and well-being of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people.

StopC27 First Nations Transparency is a blog/website with some pretty interesting articles about the whole thing. It asks some good questions about how the information will be used. Questions I think it’s fair to ask.

There’s no question that the federal government has been passing bills left, right, and centre that actively compromise or infringe upon First Nations Treaty Rights (changes made to both the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act serve to circumvent the government’s duty to consult First Nations on natural resource projects which may affect Treaty rights). I’m not convinced Bill C-37 doesn’t attempt to negate Treaties.

It may shock you that I’m a little embittered by this particular government trying to force “transparency” on anyone but themselves, too, so there’s a lot of eye-rolling going on all up in here. That’s probably a topic for another post, though. In short, the Harper government is the LEAST transparent, most heavily controlled government I can remember.

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

1 Comment

  1. Sadly, there are far too many ways of hiding additional income – whether it comes from public or private monies. And the perks of office.

    I have the feeling that if we really knew what our leaders are making, we’d be appalled.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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