Prairie First Nations Tired of Unaccountable Band Governments

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

It is quite distressing to hear that Indigenous activist Harrison Thunderchild of Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan has launched a court application with the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench to demand transparency from his own First Nation’s leaders.

Parliament passed the First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA) into law in 2013 when the Conservatives were in power. The law made chief and band council salaries and benefits public information, as well as the First Nations’ audited financial statements. As a result, First Nations residents (and other Canadians) were guaranteed to have information that other Canadians take for granted.

When the Liberals came to power, they stopped enforcing the FNFTA, which was a huge step backwards given all the work many Indigenous people put into fighting for this bill, and the number of people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who support it.

It was so alarming when the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister stopped enforcing the FNFTA in December 2015.  This made little sense given that compliance with the Act was about 90 per cent and has dropped to about 80 per cent now.

For years, I was lead researcher on the Frontier Centre’s Aboriginal Governance Index (AGI), an annual barometer of the perceptions of the quality of governance and services on First Nation reserves across the Prairies. At that time, our largely First Nation staff travelled to well over 100 communities and surveyed thousands of people. We also spoke to hundreds of individuals in those communities. We heard scores of stories about financial mismanagement and unaccountable behaviour at many bands. Despite the claims by many First Nation supporters that this information is readily available, our respondents told a different story—often a story of frustration and disappointment in trying to access basic information about their own bands.

In November 2012, I testified as a witness before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs about Bill C-27, the proposed First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA).

During my testimony, I revealed that 77 per cent of the Prairie First Nation members surveyed agreed that salary information for elected officials should be made public and be accessible. However, 25 per cent sadly reported that this information is not available.

Of course, quite a few First Nation leaders – as most community leaders – have adopted an “open books” policy on financial information.  Our AGI project always highlighted such communities. But, our research shows that Indigenous communities expect their leaders to be open to them, just like they expect Indigenous Affairs to be accountable to First Nations.

Indigenous leaders who resist transparency unfortunately divide their own membership by claiming that this sort of commonplace transparency is somehow anti-First Nation or an infringement on Indigenous self-government.

Indigenous activist Thunderchild was quoted saying this governance stand is, in fact, traditional. He said: “Accountability and transparency are principles of leadership for our people that were passed down to me from my father and grandfathers. When our leaders don’t tell grassroots band members what’s happening with the community’s money, they’re turning their backs on our heritage.”

In February 2016, the Public Policy Forum – an Ottawa-based think tank – released a report entitled, “Improving Access to Capital for Canada’s First Nations Communities”.  The report said: “The real or perceived lack of public sector transparency acts as a barrier to investment. This is true for all governments. However, First Nation communities have far fewer resources to ensure compliance with high governance standards.”  

The report concluded that, “Improving transparency and accountability within First Nation governments is essential for attracting outside investment.”  Forward-looking Indigenous governments realize that accountability and transparency are the only way to improved First Nations’ social and economic conditions.

All First Nations in the country should follow the lead of Atlantic Canada First Nations, when they proudly proclaimed that all Atlantic bands are compliant with this legislation. They realized it was a selling feature for investment in their lands.

Recalcitrant First Nation governments need to end their opposition and get on board and so do the federal government in resuming the enforcement of this important law.