Two years ago, after Parliament enacted the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, anomalies started turning up in the finances of some native communities – arrangements that in many cases had never before been made public, and were surprising and puzzling to the members of those communities themselves. Those revelations proved the FNFTA's worth.
Five band councils in Western Canada are actively resisting the law's financial disclosure. Bernard Valcourt, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, is right to be going to the Federal Court to ask for an order requiring them to make public their financial statements, including the remuneration of the council members. The most determined of the five, Onion Lake Cree Nation of Alberta and Saskatchewan, is also challenging the validity of the FNFTA on the basis of the Constitution.
The statute, which is short and simple, is not onerous. It does not dictate the salaries of chiefs or what bands can spend. But it does enable the members of particular First Nations – and the federal government, the source of much of reserves' revenue – to know more about how native governments are spending their money, including what chiefs and band councillors are paid. The FNFTA is essential for responsible government. The governed always need to know what the governors are up to.
For example, the released accounts of the Shuswap First Nation in the Upper Columbia region of B.C., with 87 residents, appeared to show disproportionate pay to one family. The chief's salary was in the same range as that of the prime minister of Canada. This information came to light because of the FNFTA. As a result, a new election produced a new set of councillors.
Onion Lake, one of the bands challenging the law, compares itself to a private company that can keep its affairs confidential. But every First Nation is a government and must account for itself publicly – to its own public.
The federal Liberals and the federal NDP both opposed the FNFTA. If one of these parties wins the federal election, it would be well advised to reconsider its position, both for its own new government and for the native peoples of Canada. The law is about increasing information and transparency. It's hard to have too much of either.