Conservatives speed First Nations accountability bill
The federal Conservatives are pushing through more First Nations legislation that does not have the support of chiefs, despite growing tension between Ottawa and native leaders.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Wednesday his party is forcing a vote to shut down debate on a financial transparency bill that will require First Nations chiefs and councillors to publish their salaries and expenses.
The move means the bill will pass the House of Commons by the end of this week — over the objections of chiefs as well as the federal NDP and Liberals. Various forms of the bill have been around for three years, stalled by electoral cycles and opposition from the Assembly of First Nations.
"It's unfortunate that we have to take this measure," Duncan told a news conference. "Continued obstruction by the NDP and Liberals has made it clear that this is the only way this important bill will be passed."
Duncan said that while the chiefs' organization may not support the legislation, it is in keeping with resolutions passed by the AFN and is widely favoured by grassroots First Nations.
But it's only one of several pieces of legislation that the Conservatives have pushed aggressively through the Commons over the objections of the AFN, leading to deterioration in the relationship between Conservative and First Nations leaders.
"There has been a loss of momentum and sense of frustration (that) is being felt by the First Nation leadership," AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month. "This is exacerbated by the federal government's broader legislative agenda."
Duncan responded to the letter on Wednesday, saying Atleo has unrealistic expectations for quick progress on plans made by Ottawa and First Nations last January to work together on a number of fronts.
"We've done an amazing amount," Duncan said.
The AFN has already pulled its support for a joint process on reforming First Nations education and is now warning about lack of consultation and progress on comprehensive claims, treaty implementation, governance, economic development and fiscal relations.
NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder said the talks won't get back on track until the federal government renounces the old ways of telling First Nations how things should be done.
"It's up to the federal government to determine leadership on this because they're the ones that actually hold the hammer," Crowder said in an interview. "They're the ones that keep appealing court decisions and so on and so on. So they're the ones that keep perpetuating this adversarial approach."
When it comes to the transparency act, there is no disagreement among chiefs, the opposition and the Conservatives that chiefs and councillors should be accountable and open about their salaries and expenses.
The disagreement comes in deciding how that should be done.
The act before Parliament stems from research from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation which showed that more than 50 band politicians earn more than the prime minister and more than 160 are better-paid than a premier.
"First Nation governments operating under the Indian Act are now the only governments in Canada that do not currently have a legislated requirement to make basic financial information public," Duncan said Wednesday.
He said the new law would not give administrators any extra work, but would go a long way towards winning the trust of band members and also attracting much-needed investment for economic development.
But the AFN has argued that chiefs and councillors are already accountable in numerous ways and would be willing to go even further if they control the process. The government's approach borders on racism, the association has argued.
"Chiefs were clear in their assertion that the proposed measures are both heavy-handed and unnecessary and they suggest that First Nation governments are corrupt, our leaders are not transparent and consequently need to be regulated by Ottawa," B.C. regional chief Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a recent appearance before a parliamentary committee.
"What we really need to do is increase the options for our nations to develop their own governance including their accountability frameworks, so they can build their own future within Canada rather than be legislated from above."