Opinion

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: A smoke screen?

As a reporter and as a taxpayer, I fundamentally believe in transparency.

Forcing elected officials to detail their salaries and, more importantly, their expenses, is a partial indication of the importance they place on conducting the people’s business. Obviously some are frugal while others, unfortunately, see the public purse as an extension of their own personal bank account.

Like mayors, city councillors, MLAs and MPs, First Nations chiefs and band councillors should disclose their financial compensation. After all, it is the public’s money and the public has a right to know how it is being used.

As we have seen with other political institutions, First Nations remuneration is open to abuse by some individuals, and questions may arise about the level of pay compared to the actual size of the band population.

“First Nations, like all Canadians, deserve transparency and accountability from their elected officials,” Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told the CBC.

“With increased access to basic financial information, community members can make more informed decisions about the financial management and reporting of their elected officials.”

On the surface, all of those comments sound completely fair. But some may be left wondering why Ottawa has this sudden interest in opening up the books.

Consider that at the same time that chiefs ands councils are conforming to the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, there is a very real crisis on reserves across the country.

A recent article in Maclean’s indicates that half of First Nations children in Canada are impacted by poverty, and that jumps to 64 per in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The article also goes on to say that nine out of the 10 most violent communities in the country are native as are 92 of Canada’s 100 poorest communities.

“Compared to non-native Canadians, aboriginal youth are seven times more likely to be victims of homicide, five times more likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to die an alcohol-related death,”  writes Maclean’s reporter Tamsin McMahon.

“The infant mortality rate is double the Canadian average, and native children are at higher risk of a wide array of serious health problems, from cavities in toddlers to substance abuse, HIV infections, tuberculosis and chlamydia. Aboriginal girls are at greater risk of sexual assault, domestic violence and teenage pregnancies.”

And the statistics go on and on, and the situation is only expected to get worse as the youngest and fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population is First Nations.

Yes, band chiefs and councils play a role in conditions on their reserves, even if it’s simply taking a very public stand against abuse. However, the reality is that Valcourt’s department controls the purse strings and that means that First Nations communities have little meaningful access to financial resources to address major issues such as housing and education.

While some reserves are located in areas conducive to development, others are not. Economic opportunities are limited, and the lack of agreements over title and rights adds to the uncertainty.

As was expected, the media jumped all over the financial disclosure statements and identified a handful of chiefs whose spending habits are suspect. But consider that they are no more representative of the majority of native leaders in Canada than a mayor who hands in false restaurant receipts is indicative of the bulk of municipal officials. A couple of rotten apples doesn’t mean the whole barrel is in trouble.

In the end, it’s difficult to know what the federal government is trying to achieve with the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

Is the goal to ensure increased public scrutiny of public dollars or to divert attention away from Ottawa’s own handling of aboriginal affairs?

 

 

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