Liberal senators walk out on Aboriginal Affairs minister

Three Liberal senators, all of them aboriginal, walked out of a committee meeting Wednesday night, as Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan was testifying about the need for his government's proposed First Nations Accountability Act.

John Duncan defends bill proposing more financial transparency in First Nations communities

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan defended the controversial proposed First Nations Financial Transparency Act before the Senate committee on Aboriginal Peoples on Wednesday evening. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Three Liberal senators, all of them aboriginal, walked out of a committee meeting Wednesday night, as Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan was testifying about the need for his government's proposed First Nations Accountability Act.

The act would force all First Nations to post their annual financial statements online, along with the salaries of the chief and council members.  

Wednesday evening was the first time the Senate's aboriginal committee met to review the legislation.

Two of the Liberal senators told the committee they supported the principle behind the legislation.

"I live in [a] First Nation and if I go ask for information I can't get anything," said Sandra Nicholas, who represents New Brunswick.  

Fellow Liberal Senator Nick Sibbeston from the Northwest Territories told Duncan his problem wasn't with the bill, but with the process. He asked the minister why there wasn't more consultation with First Nations communities, especially after the recent Idle No More protests.  

"I ask you as an aboriginal person on behalf of all the aboriginal people in our country who say there is need for consultation, whether you would consider pulling the bill," he said.

But Duncan replied that the legislation was tabled in 2011 and if there is a delay now, it could be more than two years before it is implemented.  

"You know there are some people entrenched contrary to the bill. But the public call for accountability, and the membership call for accountability, is something as a government I don't think we can ignore," Duncan told the committee.  

A few minutes later, Sibbeston told the committee that he, Nicholas, and Senator Lillian Dyck from Saskatchewan were leaving the meeting.  

"It's our small way of showing discontent I guess with the fact that nothing seems to have changed and also to show our support for the First Nations in our country that at least somebody in Ottawa has heard them," Sibbeston said as he was leaving.  

First Nations find measures 'heavy-handed'

The committee will continue to hear from more witnesses in the weeks ahead.

The bill does not have the unanimous support of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

While there is general consensus for the need for chiefs and councillors to be more transparent and accountable, there is disagreement over how that should be done.

For example, some First Nations do not have internet access, making it difficult to post information online.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, a B.C. regional AFN chief, said before a parliamentary committee last year, "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.

"What we really need to do is increase the options for our [First 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," she added.

No date yet for next AFN-PM meeting

Duncan told CBC News that he met with Shawn Atleo, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, on Tuesday for the first time since Atleo returned to work after a brief sick leave.

Duncan said no date has been set for a followup meeting between the prime minister and Atleo.

The high level working group of senior AFN chiefs, privy council officials and representatives from the Prime Minister's Office met on Wednesday and are set to meet again next Monday to attempt to address most of the eight priorities put forward by the chiefs in January.  

Duncan confirmed the focus of the group's work is comprehensive land claims and treaty implementation.  

On Tuesday evening, the majority of the Conservative caucus joined the NDP in support of a motion in the House of Commons that called on the Harper government to "make the improvement of economic outcomes of First Nations, Inuit and Métis a central focus of Budget 2013."  

The motion also called on the government to "commit to action on treaty implementation and full and meaningful consultation on legislation that affects the rights of aboriginal Canadians, as required by domestic and international law."

With files from CBC News