The First Nations Financial Transparency Act has only been law for a year and a half, but it has already shown its worth. Without it, the startlingly disproportionate compensation to Chief Ron Giesbrecht of the Kwikwetlem First Nation in Coquitlam, B.C. would not have come to light.
Chief Giesbrecht’s salary for serving as chief is only $4,800; the reserve has 35 residents and there are 47 other registered members off the reserve. His salary as economic development officer is comfortable: $80,000. The big payoff turns out to have come from a highly unusual 10-per-cent bonus on certain band transactions. It wasn’t instituted by the chief, but it wasn’t questioned by him either. The other two councillors say they didn’t even know about it.
The B.C. government had quite properly entered into negotiations with the Kwikwetlem First Nation, apparently for the redevelopment of about 236 hectares of wooded slopes called Burke Mountain. A settlement, extinguishing a claim to aboriginal title on those lands, was reached, in exchange for $8.2-million. Some of the payment was distributed to band members, with each receiving a cheque last month for $10,000. So far, so reasonable.
But Chief Giesbrecht, thanks to that mysterious “Mr. 10 per cent” clause, received an $800,000 as his bonus. Without the disclosure required by the new law, the facts, and the contrast between the band members’ payout and the chief’s windfall, would likely never have come to light.
Bernard Valcourt, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs – who, to his credit, introduced the FNFTA – has observed that 37 per cent of the housing units on the Kwikwetlem reserve are in need of major repair or replacement. The implication is that the nearly $1-million that went to a chief might better have gone to his community. Chief Giesbrecht’s constituents are asking as much.
Some critics, such as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, think the FNFTA is just a smokescreen, an attempt to demonize the chiefs and divert attention away from the Harper government. Perhaps. But native Canadians – who are the main beneficiaries of the legislation – can use all of its new information about their communities’ finances as they see fit. It’s empowering, full stop. They can hold their chiefs to account, while still criticizing Ottawa on other matters. The two tracks aren’t in conflict.