Grassroots First Nations whistleblowers need accountability protections

It’s worrying to see an old watchdog blindly wander away from its post especially when a keen-eyed replacement is kept from standing guard.

Band members are best people to enforce accountability

Whistleblower Glenn Moosomin told CBC last December that vote buying and other corruption has left little money to help band members on the Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head Lean Man First Nation, Sask. who are in need. A report commissioned by the federal government found that cocaine, marijuana and tens of thousands of dollars in cash were used to bribe voters in a recent election on the First Nation. (Jason Warick/CBC)

It's worrying to see an old watchdog blindly wander away from its post especially when a keen-eyed replacement is kept from standing guard.

The federal government is moving to provide 10-year grants to some First Nations with little bureaucratic oversight.

Essentially, Ottawa would add up the amounts due to individual First Nations for education, housing, etc., and transfer the total for the chief and council to spend as they wish. It's an unprecedented proposal (the feds routinely pull strings on transfers to provinces), but it got little attention.

At this point it's important to emphatically state that many First Nations are well run by ethical leaders, but we also need the courage to admit there are challenges.

Bureaucratic oversight isn't perfect, but that doesn't negate the Crown's duty to ensure accountability for grassroots people in First Nations communities.

Band members should enforce accountability

Band members are the best people to enforce accountability. It's an obvious point, but it comes with a caveat.

People can only hold their leaders accountable if they have the vital protections such as free and fair elections; close scrutiny from the press; and, strong accountability requirements.

Consider the case of Mosquito Grizzly Bear's Head Lean Man First Nation, Sask., near Saskatoon. On Dec. 13, CBC reported on a federal investigation that found candidates in the band election bought votes with cocaine, marijuana and cash. 

Band member Glenn Moosomin blew the whistle, but empathised with band members who didn't.

"They fear for their well being and worry about being refused band benefits for not supporting the incumbents," said Moosomin.

Charmaine Stick is a band member with the Onion Lake Cree Nation who has advocated that her band post its financial statements online and comply with the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Ottawa's response provided little comfort. Indigenous Services Canada confirmed the report's authenticity, but said no decision has been made in this case.

Nor was there much media interest. If any candidate in any federal, provincial or municipal election bought votes with weed and cocaine, there would be supernova media glare.

Extreme but not unique

While Moosomin's case is extreme, the problems aren't entirely unique.

INAC applies its Default Prevention and Management Policy on First Nations with financial problems to work with the communities "to increase their ability to self-manage and to prevent default and default recurrence."

Essentially, when a First Nation has serious financial problems, Ottawa imposes requirements ranging from an approved financial plan to all the way to appointed third-party management. Of the 617 First Nations in Canada, 143 are under this policy.

Ottawa has a duty

The problem is serious and Ottawa is making it worse.

The federal government stopped enforcing The First Nations Financial Transparency Act. The act requires bands to publish salaries and expenses for chief and council as well as audited financial statements.

When Ottawa announced it would no longer enforce the act, it added another unequivocal statement.

"Transparency and accountability are paramount to any government, whether it is municipal, provincial, federal or First Nation," wrote Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett in a statement released Dec. 18, 2015.

"We will work in full partnership with First Nations leadership and organizations on the way forward to improve accountability and transparency."

Ottawa has done nothing. It hasn't brought forward legislation to strengthen accountability. It hasn't enforced the old legislation. Now it's planning to hand out string-free grants.

It's wrong for Ottawa to use its nation-to-nation policy to deal only with First Nations leaders while ignoring the rights of grassroots people in First Nations communities.

When Chief Thunderchild entered into Treaty 6 in 1879, it wasn't merely a contract between himself and the government. He forged a deep and lasting connection between his people and the Crown.

Ottawa has a duty to stand up for the people as well as their leaders. Grassroots people in First Nations communities must have the ability to hold their leaders accountable.

Todd MacKay is prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Harrison Thunderchild is an elder and grandson of Chief Thunderchild.