The government introduced a bill Wednesday requiring elected officials from First Nations to disclose their expenses and salaries.
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada John Duncan and Conservative MP Kelly Block were at the Whitecap Dakota First Nation near Saskatoon on Wednesday afternoon to talk about the bill.
The bill, called an "Act to enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations" follows on the heels of Block's private member's bill in the last Parliament. She introduced a similar bill in 2010 and it made it to second reading in 2011 but died when the election was called.
Under Duncan's proposed legislation, individual First Nations would have to publicize financial information on their own website, or the website of a Tribal Council or partner organization. The bill also requires that the audited financial statements and schedule of remuneration that First Nations are already required to submit to the federal government be published on the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Those statements include expenses and salaries of chiefs and councillors and detail how money was spent every year.
"Our government believes First Nations, like all Canadians, deserve transparency and accountability from their elected officials," said Duncan in a news release. "The bill builds on our government's ongoing commitment to ensuring First Nations have strong, transparent and accountable governments. It will also lead to decreasing the reporting burden for First Nations."
The proposed law would not apply to bands with comprehensive self-government agreements.
The chief of Whitecap Dakota First Nation, where Duncan and Block made Wednesday's announcement about the new bill, supports Block's private member's bill.
Chief Darcy Bear said at the time that his band regularly files financial statements that are shared with all band members. Bear says he introduced an accountability and fiscal responsibility regime on the First Nation that has led to great success.
In the government's news release, Bear is quoted as saying that the bill would mean more accountability that comes with a financial advantage. "Transparent and accountable First Nation governments support a strong environment for investment leading to greater economic development," he said.
Shawn Atleo, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement that the organization clearly set out their plans to "achieve real change" in the AFN's federal pre-budget submission and in a recent presentation to the House Finance committee.
"First Nations support and are committed to the principles of accountability and transparency to our citizens. We do not support unilateralism that further entrenches us in a system that doesn’t work for our people or Canada," Atleo said. "We must transform the relationship [with government] to one that is based on respect for First Nation rights, jurisdiction and treaties and jointly develop an approach to achieving real accountability and efficiency of all governments."
Controversy over chiefs' salaries
When she spoke to the bill in Parliament, Block said many elected First Nations officials already meet a standard of openness and transparency but those who don't should be required to reach it.
First Nations are currently required to submit audited financial statements to Duncan's department, previously called Indian and Northern Affairs, and Block said her bill was a "common sense extension" of that requirement.
Block said her bill would allow band members to easily access financial information about their leaders and that they have a right to know how much they make. All Canadians have a right to know, she said in the House of Commons, and disclosing the information would "strengthen Canadians' support" for First Nations governments.
The Saskatchewan MP said contrary to some claims made by critics of her bill, it would not add to the reporting burden that some First Nations already feel they carry.
She introduced her bill around the same time as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released a controversial report on salaries. Its analysis said that 222 aboriginal chiefs and councillors from First Nations communities across Canada earn more money than their provincial premiers, and 82 make more than the prime minister.
The AFN rejected the analysis and debunked its methodology in its response to the story.
There are more than 3,000 First Nation elected officials in Canada and, according to the AFN's calculations, they earn $36,845 on average.
At the AFN's special chiefs assembly in December 2010, a resolution was passed that called Block's bill unnecessary and heavy-handed. It said that First Nations already provide a minimum of 168 reports to federal funding departments and that the level of disclosure of First Nations governments is often above that of other elected officials.
The chiefs agreed that they are committed to transparency and accountability and that their primary reporting relationship is to their citizens.
The Official Opposition reacted to news of the impending bill after the NDP caucus meeting early Wednesday. Interim leader Nycole Turmel said she hadn't seen the bill yet and while the NDP isn't opposed to transparency, the government shouldn't be making this a priority.
"We believe there are other priorities for First Nations," she said, giving affordable housing and clean water as examples of issues the government should be working on instead.
"This government doesn't address the problem [First Nations] have in their communities," Turmel said.