One week after a new legal deadline, nearly two-thirds of Canada’s First Nations have not yet provided Ottawa detailed financial information – including how much chiefs and councillors are paid.
Communities were given until July 29 to publish or submit their financial reports. Roughly 600 First Nations across Canada are affected.
So far, the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs has received reports from only 224 First Nations, a government source confirmed to The Globe and Mail. That means only about 37 per cent of affected First Nations have sent reports to Aboriginal Affairs.
The First Nations Financial Transparency Act created tension when it was brought in as a response to complaints from individual First Nation members who said they could not gain access to financial records in their communities. Native leaders with the Assembly of First Nations have long said they were willing to work with Ottawa on new transparency rules, but accuse the federal Conservatives of acting unilaterally with a law that goes too far.
The 2013 law gives First Nations the option of submitting reports to Aboriginal Affairs so the department can post the information on its website or simply posting the reports on the community’s website. That means it is possible that in addition to the 224 that sent reports to Ottawa, others have complied by posting their information online themselves.
Since last week’s deadline, officials at Aboriginal Affairs have been collecting the reports they’ve received and posting the information on the department’s website as it is ready. Reports from 184 First Nations were available on the government website Wednesday. Officials are also scanning the websites of First Nations to see whether they have posted reports.
Since the department began posting expenses, members of the small Kwikwetlem First Nation in B.C. have expressed their surprise that their chief, Ron Giesbrecht, was paid $914,219 in 2013. Some in the community are petitioning for the chief’s removal.
Erica Meekes, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, said the government will send reminder letters to bands that are not in compliance.
“The law is the law,” she said in a statement. “After 120 calendar days, if there is no resolution, for bands that are refusing to comply with the law, the government will take action according to the provisions of the law, which could include withholding of funding.”
Reports have continued to come in to the department this week, so it is possible that some First Nations are simply a bit late. However, others are confirming they decided not to send all of the information requested under the law.
The Tsuu T’ina First Nation near Calgary sent some financial information, but did not disclose how much the chief and councillors are paid. Peter Manywounds, the nation’s CEO and spokesperson, told The Globe he is glad to hear the government will wait 120 days before moving to enforcement. Mr. Manywounds said treaty-area chiefs plan to discuss the issue and possible next steps at a meeting next week in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask.
“We have no real interest at this point [in] getting into a confrontation with the Government of Canada on something like this,” he said. “We understand the law’s been passed, but from our perspective, we’re not sure it’s constitutional. We’re not sure if it contravenes treaty and aboriginal rights. We’re not sure if it creates a situation where we would be breaking our fiduciary responsibility to our members by disclosing their information to the whole world.”
The Tsuu T’ina nation argues it should not have to disclose salary and other information that comes from band-generated income.
A similar argument has been made by Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, who nonetheless did disclose he was paid $146,369 last year. Mr. Louie argued the figure includes his compensation for managing several on-reserve businesses and said the disclosure of such information puts those businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
The law gives the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs the power to terminate the department’s funding of a First Nation if it refuses to publish audited financial statements.
Mr. Manywounds said cases such as Kwikwetlem hurt the arguments of transparent aboriginal leaders, who he said are in the majority.
“The problem you have nationally is there are a few examples where it does look really wrong, like out in Kwikwetlem. That really looks pretty strange, the kind of dollars that the chief’s been paid there,” he said. “It just on the face of it makes the rest of us look suspect. That doesn’t help.”