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The remedy for questionable reserve salaries: Transparency

Appeared in the Calgary Herald
Release Date: October 10, 2010
If Canadians suspect there’s a good case for the disclosure of political salaries on Aboriginal reserves, that hunch should be reinforced by examples of such compensation leaked to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation over the past year.

Thanks to brown envelopes, the salary of the chief of Manitoba’s Peguis band became public; he earned $221,642 in 2007-08. For Chief Glenn Hudson, that dipped slightly in the following year to $174,230. Given that such compensation is tax-free, the Taxpayers Federation calculated that over two years, Hudson earned the taxable equivalent of $678,000.

Four other Peguis councilors made similar amounts. Not bad work for heading up the reserve equivalent of a small town; the Peguis First Nation has 7,200 members according to its website.

In other involuntary disclosures courtesy of the brown envelope brigade, it was revealed that councilors for Manitoba’s Crane River band made between $87,500 and $113,400 in tax-free compensation in 2008-09. Crane River’s population was 432 people according to the 2006 census.

In Alberta this spring, another mysterious envelope revealed that a former Enoch Cree Nation chief earned $327,712 in tax-free compensation in 2006-07; a more recent chief earned a tax-free salary of $250,000 until he voluntarily reduced it last November to $180,000. That’s still the taxable equivalent of a $388,000 salary reduced to $274,000. Enoch Cree has 1,628 residents.

The CTF could only publish such numbers because someone anonymously divulged the information. Unlike other villages, towns and cities across Canada, Aboriginal reserves are under no obligation to reveal political salaries. A band member can request details, but even then, politicians on reserve are under no obligation to answer.

And good luck with that. Given band politics where one family or faction can be at odds with competing factions, voluntary disclosure won’t always work, no more than it would in non-Aboriginal communities if such exceptionally high salaries were at stake and if disclosure were not mandated.

That’s why a private member’s bill from Conservative Member of Parliament Kelly Block to require transparency makes eminent policy sense. After all, taxpayers across Canada—none of whom have tax-free status if they don’t live on reserves—will pay $7.2 billion this year for the department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development alone (there are other related expenditures beyond DIAND).

As difficult as it is for reserve members to access such data, other Canadians who pay for the salaries of on-reserve politicians are not even entitled to ask.

Given such realities, what makes less sense is the defense of non-disclosure. The Assembly of First Nations’ Chief Shawn Atleo, who has reformist tendencies on certain matters, shows none here. He labeled the Saskatchewan MP’s bill “ill-conceived.”

Atleo blamed the federal government and argued that bands file up to 60,000 reports a year, so it’s not the fault of Aboriginal governments if spending can’t be tracked. He also asserted the bill was part of a pattern of insinuations about Aboriginal peoples.

Those are red herrings. Whether reserves must file six reports or 60,000, nothing prevents each reserve from publicizing the details of councilor salaries in the manner that every other village, town and city in Canada must. It’s a basic norm of accountability in democratic societies.

Atleo is correct to worry about modestly-paid Aboriginal leaders being wrongly tainted by a few who garner outsized incomes relative to the smallness of their community’s population. To be sure, CEO-style salaries for small business-size reserves are the exception, not the rule. But the way to deal with that perception is transparency, not by changing the subject.   

With rare exception, most reserves in Canada have a few thousand people at most; many have only a few hundred. As with any small town, it would take tremendous courage to demand to know the salaries of people—neighbours—that one must interact with on a regular basis.   

At present, most Aboriginal band members are handicapped by the realities of living in just such small communities and a desire not to rock the boat. They shouldn’t be forced to choose between peaceful neighbourly relations and accountable governments. As with any other community in Canada, the disclosure of political salaries should be automatic.