Jessica Iron Joseph
When I first heard about the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA), I was skeptical and annoyed, and quick to criticize Harper and his rowdy bunch of big, bad Conservatives.
Surely though, you’ve heard reports of outrageous chief and council salaries across Canada, due to the newly imposed First Nations Financial Transparency Act.
The Act, which took effect March 27, 2013 requires First Nations bands to provide members with, and publish online, their audited consolidated financial statements, along with a Schedule of Remuneration and Expenses (Chief and Council salaries). These reports must be made available 120 days following the end of the fiscal year, which is why we are only learning about them now.
I’ve never been against band transparency. I believe band members are entitled to know how their chief and council are using their monies, but what initially irritated me was the manner in which this act was enforced.
I felt that it was one more Conservative dig at First Nations’ autonomy, or right to decide how to govern their nations.
Forcibly demanding they produce this information and make it public seems to go against the nation to nation agreements that treaties are based on, and instead replaces them with patronizing legislation.
Dictating the terms of transparency and accountability without consultation is where the problem lies. This Big Brother-esque move denies First Nation people the opportunity to negotiate and arrive at the best possible solution for their communities.
Justin Trudeau has recently argued just this; that he is in favor of scrapping the FNFTA as it is, and replacing it with one that has been drafted with meaningful consultation with First Nations people. Of course, as a Liberal party leader it is his duty to take the opposite stance, but in this case, he appears to be on track with what it means to uphold and honor treaties.
The timing of the FNFTA announcement was suspicious as well, just weeks after news broke of an embarrassing Senate scandal. It all seemed to be a convenient tactic at distracting the public.
Like I said, these were my initial thoughts.
I’m not ashamed to say that stubborn pride and indigenous loyalty may have tainted my objectivity. Yet no matter how stubborn I am, I still always try to see the other side of things—if only to strengthen my argument. On rare occasions, such as this, I will do an about-face.
My change of opinion might not be popular with friends, or even some family members, but I never agreed to life as a columnist with sunny dreams of popularity blinding my sensibilities. So, I’ll take a stand, even if it turns out to be an unpopular one.
If given the option, perhaps some leaders would never willingly come forward, to their people, with this hotly-debated information. Thus, by enforcing the FNFTA it removes the secrecy of salaries and spending habits, and empowers band members by giving them access to information they have a right to know.
Once bands began submitting their audits, it became quickly apparent that no two bands were alike. In fact, the more I looked at what chiefs and councillors were paid across the province, and even Canada, I was astounded by the dissimilitude.
Some leaders seemed to access the public coffers for their own free will and profligate whims, while others led their people for a paltry, embarrassing sum. As I suspected though, most band leaders fell within an innocuous, acceptable range.
There are over 600 bands in Canada, and while it was interesting research, I didn’t do a complete and thorough comparison of every single band. And even if I had wanted to, it wouldn’t be possible as all bands have not yet posted their reports.
However, an easy formula for salaries will likely never materialize because a one-size-fits-all approach would be ineffective and entirely wrong. Certain factors need to be considered for each band, such as: population, remoteness, and the specific roles of each council member—to fully grasp what a proper salary might look like.
Now each band council will have to sit down and explain how they arrived at certain numbers, and why, something that may have never been done before. It will be up to each band to decide what the best use of their money is. One advantage of all this information being public is that they can easily compare to bands of similar size, and adjust these numbers according to what seems fair.
Like any organization, or even household, you cannot become better with money until you have some very honest conversations. Decisions are difficult to make without all facts or numbers present.
Another factor is priority. Last year’s councillors might have allocated money towards things they deemed appropriate, while a new batch of leaders may have completely different ideas and equally different priorities.
Though many bands have been posting their audited reports for years, not all have; and those band members who weren’t privy to such information before will now have a wealth of information to draw from and compare to.
There will undoubtedly be growing pains as each band determines their financial future. But maybe this little push will be beneficial after all.
Ultimately, as elected leaders, they have responsibilities to their people. Hopefully they will use the FNFTA as an opportunity to promote more conversations and feedback from the people they agreed to represent.
Jessica Iron Joseph is a Prince Albert freelance writer. Her column appears every fourth Friday in rotation with Sharon Thomas, Lori Q. McGavin and Kevin Joseph.