Steven E. Salterio is professor and director of the CPA-Queen's Centre for Governance at the Smith School of Business, Queen's University. Russell A. Evans is a PhD candidate in accounting at the Smith School of Business.
Accountability is a buzzword of our time. The legitimate right to compel others to account for their actions in democratic institutions resides with those who elect them as their representatives. But in the strange world of Canada's First Nations, it is the federal government that asserts itself as the legitimate body to call elected First Nations leaders to account.
It's no wonder that First Nations leaders, seeking to enhance their legitimacy with their own people, have opted to go to the courts to fight Ottawa's demands.
Excessive federal government accountability demands on First Nations are well documented. The 2002 Auditor-General's report found that the average First Nations community in Canada was required to complete 168 reports annually just to keep funding for basic services flowing to their bands. Imagine 168 accountability reports for a median-sized community of 1,000 people, located far from major population centres and facing social and educational challenges on par with many Third World countries. A decade later, the Auditor-General revisited this accountability overload and found no improvement.
Yet in a political response to the Idle No More movement, then-prime minister Stephen Harper's government mandated a 169th report through the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. Of course, the government rhetoric was about raising the accountability of First Nations leaders to their people. How was this to be achieved? By requiring 581 First Nations to publicly post their audited financial statements and the salary information of the chief and council to the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development website.
Failure to comply with this 169th report was enforced by the threat of withholding band administration funds – the very money needed to bring bands into compliance. With astuteness worthy of Machiavelli, former aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt disingenuously suggested that First Nations divert funds from social and educational programs, which would continue to flow as block grants, to the band administration!
Astonishingly, this suggestion was made at a time when Mr. Harper's government was attempting to portray First Nations leaders as dishonest and corrupt to their own communities. There are currently 43 First Nations not in compliance with the act, with a total of $1.2-million of funding being withheld. What this tells us is that despite the accountability overload represented by report No. 169 and its questionable motives, the vast majority of band leaders have complied with its requirements. The result is simple: The demand for accountability to Ottawa in the name of band members leads to these very members viewing their elected leaders as government pawns. This is hardly the heady stuff of leaders of sovereign governments, who are supposed to be advocating for their people's legitimate rights on a "nation to nation" basis. Indeed, the rare cases of legitimate First Nations resistance to the regime of excessive accountability tend to be trumpeted negatively in the news media. This adds to the climate of animosity and mistrust between First Nations people and the general Canadian population, blurring the reality that First Nations have the skills to govern themselves.
Achieving First Nations sovereignty begins with a demonstration of First Nations leaders' ability to govern, including a focus on leaders accounting to those who elect them. Accountability demands that focus First Nation leaders' attention solely on complying with federal government reporting is a roadblock on the path to self-government. While many indigenous people view self-government as far from perfect, it begins to return the First Nations communities to "nation-to-nation" status with Canada, as defined in the 1763 Royal Proclamation, in court decisions and in our Constitution.
Government paternalism, hidden in the form of rhetoric about increased accountability, only hinders the advancement of First Nations toward sovereignty. If advances are not made soon, we will merely see the continuation of the long, unhealthy relationship between Canada and the First Nations. Let us hope that the new federal government does not repeat the mistakes of the past, and that it takes actions to develop a framework where accountability of First Nations leaders to their own people is seen as first and foremost.