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Controversial First Nation chief’s salary raises concern

In 1997 John Thunder was selected as the sixth hereditary Chief in the history of Buffalo Point First Nation. Taking the reins from his father, John led the completion of the Lake of the Sandhills Golf Course and fast-tracked developments including the Native Cultural Centre and the Resort Centre featuring the Fire & Water Bistro and Island Green Lounge.

A controversial Manitoba chief charged last year with extortion is among the highest paid First Nation leaders in the country, according to an initial government release of salary information.

Chief John Thunder, the hereditary chief of the 125-member Buffalo Point First Nation, was paid $116,918 last year. Mr. Thunder was charged with extortion by the RCMP in October and is also involved in a legal battle with area cottage owners.

His leadership was recently challenged by Manitoba's Southern Chiefs Association, which recognized one of Mr. Thunder's critics, Andrea Camp, as chief. Mr. Thunder, still federally recognized as chief, has previously rejected the leadership challenge and he defended his salary Tuesday.

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"I'm the most affordable Chief Executive Officer in Canada, and that does not even count my 31 years of groundbreaking leadership," he said in an e-mail.

The salaries of First Nation leaders from across the country are starting to appear online this week as a new federal transparency law takes effect.

The more than 600 First Nation communities in Canada had until this week to disclose their salaries and other financial information online. The requirement is based on the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which received royal assent in March, 2013.

The department of Aboriginal Affairs is posting the information as it comes in. Less than two dozen reports have so far been published.

The initial reports show that compensation for First Nation chiefs varies widely. Some are paid less than $20,000 a year, while other salaries exceed $100,000. Chiefs and councillors who have Indian status and work on reserves are not required to pay tax.

Many more reports are expected to be posted in the coming days.

Ghislain Picard, the acting chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the federal government should have worked with First Nations to craft a comprehensive approach to accountability, including government accountability to First Nations.

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"It's sad that this government was not willing at the outset to work things out," he said, adding it was hard to predict what kind of reaction the disclosures will receive or whether any communities will refuse to participate. "Obviously it's going to have some impact in probably the days and weeks coming."

According to the AFN, the average salary for First Nation elected officials, including chiefs and councillors, in 2010 was around $36,000.

The law was partly inspired by controversy over salaries disclosed in 2010 by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation using the Access to Information Act, which found 30 chiefs earned more than provincial premiers. The new federal law requires salary information to be fully disclosed annually online.

Colin Craig, the federation's Prairie Director, raised concern with Mr. Thunder's compensation.

"It's a very high number considering the low population of band members," he said.

Mr. Craig praised the new disclosure system and said it will ultimately be up to grassroots First Nations to judge whether specific salaries are acceptable.

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Mr. Thunder's leadership of Buffalo Point First Nation has often proved controversial. He is a white man with First Nation status. His father was adopted into the Ojibwa community and passed on leadership to his son.

The registered population of Buffalo Point, which is in Southeastern Manitoba, is 125 people, with only 40 listed as living on reserve. However, much of the community is made up of non-aboriginal cottagers.

The First Nation runs several businesses and Mr. Thunder said the new disclosure rules give his competitors an unfair advantage.

"As CEO of the Buffalo Point Development Corporation, it is very concerning that my competition now has access to my business information," he said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More


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