Financial Transparency Legislation Renews Controversy Over First Nation Chiefs’ Salaries

MIKE DEAL/WINNIPEG FREE PRESSAboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt addresses reporters.Read more at

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt addresses reporters.

By David P. Ball, Indian Country Today Media Network

Newly enacted federal legislation forcing First Nations to disclose their leaders’ salaries and spending online has been decried by critics who say the public is being misled by “myth” and stereotypes.

On Wednesday March 27 in Winnipeg, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt attempted to announce that the First Nations Financial Accountability Act, known as Bill C-27, had received royal assent and become law. But advocates say that accountability already exists, and the Conservatives’ real purpose is to demonize Natives as corrupt and incapable of managing themselves.

Demonstrators cut short Valcourt’s press conference, one of them drowning out a speech by aboriginal advocate Phyllis Sutherland by beating a hand drum while shouting “Oppressors!” as she and the minister were ushered into a back room. Sutherland, an outspoken critic of her Manitoba band’s leadership—her chief reportedly earned $206,381 in 2009—brought the salaries of some First Nation chiefs to national media attention three years ago when she leaked the information to the right-leaning Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF). The federation launched an ardent campaign for transparency legislation by releasing data suggesting that dozens of chiefs earned more than the country’s Prime Minister and provincial premiers. Highest paid was the chief of Glooscap First Nation in Nova Scotia, population 304, who reportedly earned $978,468.

But aboriginal critics tore apart the federation’s method of comparing First Nations and Canadian politicians’ salaries. The organization included travel reimbursements for Natives but not Members of Parliament, for instance, and also inflated aboriginal incomes—which, under treaties, are not taxed on reserves—in order to compare them with Canadian politicians’ taxed salaries, a tactic that nearly doubled the leaders’ salaries in some cases.

“As far as I’m concerned, people have a right to know what their chief and councils are making and what their band finances are being spent on,” Sutherland, of Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Where is all this money? Why didn’t they do anything for the people? There’s certainly no benefit to the people out there.”

Sutherland said her goal was to end alleged mismanagement and secrecy, especially as many Natives suffer from substandard housing and education.

“In every First Nations reserve I talk with, it’s always the same story: widespread corruption among leaders,” she said. “Not all of them. There are some First Nations doing wonderful things for their people. But I can’t see the problem with them having to post their salaries, honorariums and remuneration. It should be automatic.”

Pam Palmater, chair of Ryerson University’s Indigenous Governance program and runner-up in last year’s election for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), says information on band finances already is provided to Aboriginal Affairs. Reserves must fill out 163 spending reports a year, she said, quoting AFN reports. On average, she added, chiefs actually make about $36,000—less than 80 percent of average per capita earnings in Canada.

“The financial information already is transparent,” Palmater told reporters. “That’s the myth that’s being perpetuated by this legislation. First Nations don’t get a single cent unless they submit audited financial statements. More than audited financial statements: On average they have to submit one report every three days.”

The AFN also opposed the legislation, saying that there are other ways to improve accountability on reserves without extending federal control over bands.

“First Nations have been clear in their commitment to accountability and transparency to all of our citizens,” said AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. “Bill C-27 would not support this accountability, but instead gives more power to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. We do not support unilateralism that further entrenches us in a system that doesn’t work for our people or Canada. The answers lie in our communities and with our citizens, not with more control from Ottawa.”

Valcourt told reporters on March 27 that C-27 represents “an important step” toward First Nations’ self-sufficiency, and would help assure outside investors their money is well managed.

“In our quest for self-sufficiency and economic development, we have a whole youth there that is waiting [for] training and getting the skills they need to get the jobs that are available and can be available for them,” he said. “Investors need the assurance there is accountability and transparency. That’s why I believe this is an important step for First Nations all across Canada.”