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B.C. First Nation chief was paid almost $1-million last year

Logo for the Kwikwetlem First Nation

The chief of an 80-member First Nation in British Columbia received nearly $1-million in pay last year thanks to an $800,000 bonus for his work as economic development officer, according to salary disclosures that are being released for the first time this week.

Chief Ron Giesbrecht of the Kwikwetlem First Nation is listed as receiving $914,219 in remuneration last year, plus an additional $16,574 in expense reimbursement. Individuals with Indian status who work on a reserve are not required to pay income tax, meaning such pay would be comparable to a taxable income of more than $1.6-million off reserve.

The compensation is by far the largest since First Nations began disclosing salary and other financial information in response to a new federal law called the First Nation Financial Transparency Act.

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In a statement, the First Nation stood by the compensation package.

"We understand that seeing such a large number for the Chief's salary is disconcerting, but for the sake of clarity, we wish to break it down for you," said a one-page news release provided to The Globe and Mail by band administrator Dale Lessoway.

The community said the chief received one salary of $4,800 for his job as chief, another salary of $80,000 for his job as economic development officer and an $800,000 bonus based on "10 per cent of Gross Profit generated from projects the Manager successfully retains."

The statement does not explain what type of economic activity triggered the bonus. Financial statements show revenue jumped from $2.8-million in 2013 to $12.6-million in 2014.

The biggest revenue source by far was the province of British Columbia in 2014, which transferred $8.2-million. The previous year the community received only $512,000 from B.C.

A spokesperson for B.C.'s Aboriginal Relations Ministry confirmed the government paid the First Nation that amount and said it was related to an economic benefit agreement involving Crown land. Spokesperson Robin Platts said as far as he knows, the payment was never formally announced and its terms – including the location of the land – are confidential.

The news release from the First Nation also states: "Please note: As of April 1, 2014, a new contract for the Economic Development Officer was negotiated and the above bonus was removed from the contract. The Chief has asked that this statement stands for itself and will make no further comment."

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The small community has about two dozen homes grouped around an unpaved road. Many of them were once trailers, but have become permanently situated. Some have rough dirt for lawns, with a mix of new and old cars parked in driveways. Nearly half the community's land is a large, unfinished housing development, with modern row houses and fresh grass.

The main road in Kwikwetlem begins beside a farm at the edge of neighbouring Coquitlam. The band office is at the entrance to the hamlet, housed in a series of portable buildings.

Outside of the office on Thursday, a Globe and Mail reporter was approached by a local man who brought his presence to the attention of Mr. Lessoway, the band administrator.

Mr. Lessoway asked the reporter to leave, saying, "We have no statement to make at this time."

The First Nation has a registered population of 81 people, of which 35 live on reserve, according to the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. It has been in the news this summer for asserting aboriginal title on the lands associated with Coquitlam's Riverview Hospital, a former psychiatric institution that the city wants to update into a wide-ranging health campus.

The disclosure of salaries and other financial information began this week because of a deadline included in the federal legislation, which received royal assent in March, 2013. Under the act, a First Nation that fails to comply with the reporting requirements could face a court order and the federal government could withhold transfer payments.

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Officials with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada are posting the audited statements as they come in. There are more than 600 First Nations in Canada. So far the department has posted disclosures from only about 50 communities.

Andrea Richer, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, expressed concern over Mr. Giesbrecht's compensation.

"The reported salary of the chief is very troubling and his community members deserve an explanation," she said.

Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which is reviewing the disclosures as they are posted online, said $914,219 is an "obscenely high amount" that requires an explanation from the First Nation.

The Assembly of First Nations, which opposed the legislation when it was before Parliament, said this week that the average salary for chiefs and councillors in 2010 was about $37,000. Many First Nations have disclosed salaries that are under $20,000 for chiefs and councillors.

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