Improve rules governing First Nation spending, critics demand
'They get away with so much and the grassroots people are the ones suffering in the end'
As members of two First Nations near Edmonton fight to find out how their chief and council are spending federal money, critics say the Liberal government's decision to end penalties under the First Nations Financial Transparency Act leaves band members with few ways to hold leadership accountable.
Over the past month, CBC News has reported on the push at two reserves near Edmonton for greater accountability from their leaders.
One of those communities is Samson Cree Nation south of Edmonton where dozens marched to the band office last week calling for a forensic audit of chief and council.
Sherry Greene, who organized the rally, said she has spent months fighting for detailed financial information to ensure money is being properly spent in a community struggling with poverty, addiction and violence.
And while she understands the importance of Indigenous sovereignty, she said national legislation is needed to govern transparency because some First Nations leaders are not following the rules.
"They get away with so much and the grassroots people are the ones suffering in the end," Greene said.
'No idea where the money is going'
Aaron Wudrick with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the Conservative government introduced the First Nations Financial Transparency Act so that average First Nations people can access financial information similar to other Canadians in regards to municipal, provincial and federal spending.
He said it was disappointing when the Liberal government stopped penalizing non-compliant bands.
The law requires all 581 bands across Canada to release financial information or lose government funding.
But Indigenous leaders have called the legislation colonial in its approach and prejudicial, because it requires information about non-taxpayer-supported streams of income that is already provided to government. Publicizing it violates treaties and privacy under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they say.
Last December, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced the government would reinstate funds that had been frozen and end penalties.
A spokesperson for the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has said community members can ask for an audit of their leadership. On Monday, Greene told CBC the department is now looking into her audit request.
But Kamloops Conservative member of Parliament Cathy McLeod, her party's critic for indigenous affairs, said "that's not good enough."
"In this day and age band members deserve the same transparency that the rest of Canadians get from their politicians," she said.
In this day and age band members deserve the same transparency that the rest of Canadians get from their politicians- Cathy McLeod
"It doesn't do any good to have audits that sit in the basement of the department of Indian Affairs because they don't know whether programs are being delivered or not."
McLeod said that legislation showed the vast majority of bands were doing a great job of managing finances, while also revealing who the exceptions were.
According to Wudrick, in 2014-15, 97 per cent of the bands across Canada complied with the law. Only 15 bands did not file financial information.
So far for 2015-16, a total of 156 bands haven't complied, but each week more do, he said.
Samson Cree has fulfilled requirements for the current year as well as previous ones.
'What is your recourse?'
Some have suggested the Transparency Act is unnecessary because band members can go to court to force financial disclosure, as some members of Alexander First Nation have done.
'That's not helpful to an ordinary citizen or an ordinary member of a First Nation to go to court," said Alan Freeman, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa, pointing out many people can't afford to take legal action.
He said that in a community where the best jobs are likely at the band office, and leadership has a lot of say in day-to-day life, their power is extensive.
"So if you can't go outside the community and find somebody who is going to help you ….what is your recourse?," he asked.
"This system is such a very frustrating system and I can understand why people give up," said Loretta Burnstick, a former chief financial officer at Alexander First Nation, where a forensic audit launched by the current elected leadership identified $2.1-million in unexplained payments to a former chief and administration.
Concerns go back and forth
"If you have concerns about what you see here, you take those concerns to Indian Affairs. Indian Affairs says you have to go back to the chief and council.
"You bring it back to chief and council it gets swept under the rug. You go to the RCMP, you've got to have proof. So they spin our people around."
In a controversial move, Burnstick and others made the findings of the audit public. They are calling for a full forensic audit of past and current leadership, paid for by INAC, which chief and council have already approved.
A federal spokesperson told CBC News in a statement that "details of an engagement process with First Nations to discuss new approaches are currently being arranged."