Democracy in First Nations communities requires an informed electorate

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Appeared in the Kelowna Daily Courier

In a letter to Richard Price in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote "whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." In other words, an informed electorate possesses the knowledge to hold their government accountable.

Jefferson understood how citizens and power interact. As do Canadian First Nations members, such as Phyllis Sutherland who supports the First Nations Transparency Act. Sutherland, from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, argues that the First Nations Transparency Act allows “people at the grassroots level…to access information about their community without fear of intimidation or reprisal.” The Act requires Chiefs to publicly release the band’s audited financial statements as well as Chief and Councillors salaries; informing First Nations members how their band finances are managed and informing Canadian taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent.

Some have argued that the First Nations Transparency Act requires the disclosure of sensitive information. However, it merely extends to First Nations politicians what is required of all other levels of government and politicians in Canada: the disclosure of salaries and financial statements. For example, the Manitoba Municipal Act requires the financial statements of municipalities to show “the amount of compensation, expenses and any other payment made to each person who is a member of the council.”

The importance of this disclosure may be lost on those who do not live on a reserve. But as Calvin Helin states “community members … have no practical ability to pursue the kinds of information related to transparency and accountability that all other Canadians take for granted.” The First Nations Transparency Act attempts to provide an avenue for First Nations members to obtain this basic financial information.

So does such disclosure have a real-world impact in First Nations communities? Members of the Shuswap First Nation in British Columbia think so. They recently decided to not re-elect their Chief of over 30 years after audited statements, now public, showed excessive spending, unexplained expenses and a Chief’s salary in excess of $200,000 a year.  Elsewhere, in Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, band members want answers and change after audited statements showed a net increase in debt to $6.2 million from $5 million within one year, all under the leadership of their Chief, who is the highest paid Chief in Manitoba at $130,000 a year.

With an increase in federal transfers to First Nations communities, this type of transparency and accountability is needed now more than ever. The federal government alone spends more than $10 billion annually on Aboriginal issues and spending per First Nations person in Canada rose more than 880 per cent over the past 60 years. In comparison spending per person on all Canadians rose by 387 per cent.

Most First Nations governments are not akin to Shushwap and also, most have complied with the new legislation, 538 out of 582 First Nations have publicly released their salaries and audited financial statements. As for the remaining 44, they will now have funding for non-essential services (such as Chief and Councillors salaries worth over $24 million) withheld by the federal government.

It is unclear why the Chiefs of these 44 communities are choosing to withhold this information from their electorate and Canadian taxpayers. It is particularly peculiar that two of these communities, Weenusk First Nation and Wuskwi Sipihk First Nation, previously published their audited financial statements and have now reversed course. That begs the question: why are these 44 Chiefs afraid of an informed electorate? Perhaps, because Jefferson—and Phyllis Sutherland—were right about the power of voters to set matters aright once informed about the facts.

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