AFN’s Opposition To Band Salary Disclosure A ‘Slap In Face’ To First Nations: Larger solution is creating relationship of financial accountability

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

If there was ever a time the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has proven itself to be out of touch with grassroots band members it is now as the organization claiming to represent all First Nations in Canada opposes a simple move to require chief and councilor salary transparency. The private member’s bill proposed by Saskatchewan MP Kelly Block would require band chief and councilor to disclose their salaries to band members, at a minimum.
This requirement is common sense.After all, it is band members themselves who are leaking this sort of information to organizations like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation because they are not getting the information they are seeking through the appropriate channels (i.e. their own leaders or administrations). First Nations who ask for basic financial data about their leaders are turned away and face obstacles. In steps the Assembly of First Nations. While claiming to represent average band members through their elected chiefs who in turn vote for the AFN national chief, this organization is always there to oppose anything advancing band governance reform. First Nation leaders already do enough reporting to government, said National chief Shawn Atleo, when questioned by the media about this private member’s bill. This objection from the AFN and its national chief is really a slap in the face to all First Nations. At a minimum, band members should not have to go through complex procesess or force the issue in court. Apparently, this private member’s bill has teeth as it states band leaders may be forced to disclose this information if they present problems.
This all comes back to why First Nation leaders are being forced to disclose this basic financial data to their own band membership. It is quite sad actually that these leaders have not taken it upon themselves to self-disclose. This would also place the AFN back in its traditional place as a lobby group for chiefs and as a status quo player. At first, positive signs of support for private property moves by the Nisga’a Nation in British Columbia seemed hopeful enough that the new national chief would not just support the status quo. His statements on this band chief and councilor salary disclosure bill put him back in the status quo camp.
Here’s the thing. Indian Affairs says the average chief’s salary is about $60,000. That is fine, so why would chiefs and their spokesperson Shawn Atleo be against opening up the books, even to show their members and the Canadian public that they are not living big? There are many chiefs and councilors who not making a lot and often they are required to travel great distances for different meetings, often from fly-in communities. If more Canadians knew about these reasonably-paid chiefs and councilors, wouldn’t that help First Nation leaders explain to the public that they are not all living high on the hog?
The answer, I feel, is the AFN and the group of chiefs who are earning way too much have too much to lose in disclosure.
Why risk threatening this lucrative arrangement of unaccountably high salaries? According to a new study by Postmedia News, about 30 elected chiefs were paid more than $110,000, all tax free. That is more than the average salary of many premiers in Canada, who earned about $109,983, after taxes. But, then on more than 80 band governments, the chief was paid less than $60,000 a year. Five first Nation communities reported their chief and councilors received no salary or honoraria at all. Those are stories that need to be reported to band members and the Canadian public, but would not because of the lack of disclosure. The highest individual salary was $247,100, while 45 other unnamed chiefs earned at least $90,000. Often times, this does not even include travel allowances. The Postmedia News study said that a 1988 court ruling stated that publishing the names and salaries of all elected band officials could violate privacy rights, because some of those salaries include income earned through proprietary band-owned businesses, such as casinos, golf courses and gas stations. So, this means the issue of high salaries for small communities could be even larger than many band members think. But, we wouldn’t know at all if these affluent chiefs and their allies at the AFN had their way.
The AFN and some of the highest paid chiefs are willing to sacrifice not allowing average band members and the public know how small this problem of exorbitant salaries really is for the sake of protecting turf and image. Every year, research assistants from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy visit First Nation communities across the Prairies and ask band members about many issues. One of those is the level of financial transparency, including salaries of leaders. Last year, our survey revealed that a troubling 62 per cent of band members across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta suggested that they “never” or “do not really” have access to the band’s business plan and other financial statements. This suggests a disturbing sense of secretiveness on the part of band governments. So, this is not just an issue for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation or the Conservative Party. It is First Nations themselves who feel the lack of transparency.
BC First Nation author Calvin Helin identified part of the problem is that money used to pay band leaders is generated off the community. It is money from the Canadian taxpayer, not from the First Nation itself. Thus, it is much easier for chiefs and councilors to set their salaries at rates often higher than that of provincial premiers. After all, it’s not really their money or money generated from the First Nation community. They don’t care. In other words, the relationship of accountability is distorted on the reserve. If money used to pay chief and councilor actually came from band members, there would be more incentives to use it well and efficiently on behalf of the community. If band members were paying taxes to their own band governments, they would be very concerned about how much their leaders were making, what trips they were taking on their dime, and how effectively chief and council was spending money in general. Just like any non-Aboriginal community, there would be hell to pay at election time if leaders were earning exorbitant salaries and travelling everywhere without results for the community. Often times what happens, and many Drum readers know this, is that one faction or family left out of the band government’s benefits, gets frustrated and sends information to organizations like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. 
But, this is only one part of the solution. It can’t just be one political faction or family getting angry and doing something about governance abuses. It needs to be the whole community. One way to do that is for everyone to be paying the bills and having an equal stake.

First Nations have the power under the Indian Act to impose taxes on their members. But, no taxes will come until First Nations build their economies. This, of course, means creating vibrant private sectors to create jobs that are actually taxable. Making band salaries open to the band membership and eventually the general public is a no-brainer. Creating a true relationship of accountability between indigenous leaders and community members will take thought and time.

Originally published in the Drum/First Perspective newspaper on October 20, 2010