If anyone harboured lingering doubts as to whether the First Nations Financial Transparency Act serves any real purpose, they need look no further than Buffalo Point First Nation. The Ojibway community in the southeast corner of Manitoba has an on-reserve status population of 50 people. Its chief, John Thunder, drew an annual salary of $116,918 last year. That makes him one of the highest paid First Nation leaders in the country.
Without the new legislation, which requires each band to disclose its annual financial data online – including salaries and audits – it is doubtful whether this or other information would have come to light. Yes, some band councils already release financial statement, but other community leaders treat their ledgers like a closely guarded secret. Some have criticized the transparency law as an example of the federal government meddling in aboriginal affairs. In fact, the disclosure requirements are not punitive by nature. The goal – one sought by Ottawa as much as it is by aboriginal people themselves – is to encourage greater accountability in how First Nations funds are managed.
Chiefs salaries are not typically the most substantial line item in a community’s budget, but they deserve scrutiny. Salaries are set by the First Nation government itself and paid for with federal funds – part of annual budgets called “Band Support Funding”. First Nations can supplement that revenue from other sources, including band-owned businesses. Mr. Thunder’s salary is arguably disproportionate to the size of the community he serves. It is especially egregious since he was not elected, but rather inherited the chieftaincy from his father.
Based on the initial reports of compensation, Mr. Thunder’s appears to be at the top end of the spectrum. Some other chiefs draw annual salaries of less than $20,000 a year. “I’m the most affordable Chief Executive Officer in Canada, and that does not even count my 31 years of ground breaking leadership,” Mr. Thunder said in an email, responding to a Globe And Mail request for comment. He is of course entitled to his opinion. But so are the people he represents. And they can’t form an opinion as to whether he’s overpaid or underpaid without knowing how much he’s paid. The salary disclosure gives Mr. Thunder’s critics reason to amplify their calls for democratic elections.
None of this is about bands being forced to bend to Ottawa’s will. It is instead about giving aboriginal citizens a clearer picture ouf how their money is being spent – and thereby making native leaders more accountable to native communities.