What the transparency act reveals about the pay of Aboriginal politicians

Thanks to a new bill, more and more details of band finances are being disclosed. Not everyone will like what they see.

Lisa King/Tri-Cities Now

Chief Ron Giesbrecht, of the tiny Kwikwetlem First Nation in B.C.’s lower mainland, took home $914,219 for a year’s worth of work. (Lisa King/Tri-Cities Now)

Chief Arthur Noskey earned a salary of $103,000 last year as the elected leader of the Loon River Cree, a northern Alberta First Nation with an on-reserve population of fewer than 500. He is a rarity among Aboriginal leaders. It’s not his pay level that makes him stand out; dozens of other chiefs across Canada make tax-free, six-figure salaries. What’s unusual about Noskey is that, among several conspicuously well-paid chiefs contacted by Maclean’s about how much they make—as those figures are in the process of being made public by the federal government—he was alone in quickly offering an upbeat, unapologetic account. Along with his political function, Noskey explained, he takes a leading role in directing six band-owned companies, from trucking to oil-patch services. “If I were in the real world, with these big CEOs, what do you think I’d be making?” he asks.

Questions about how closely the pay of Aboriginal politicians mirrors the real world are, in fact, likely to be asked with increasing frequency this fall. Under the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which the Conservative government passed last year, more details of band finances are being posted daily on the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development website. About 580 bands covered by the law must file by the end of November, but, so far, only about half have submitted disclosures. Sifting through the documents one by one, Maclean’s compiled figures for 327 First Nations, available as of last week. A picture of wildly varying pay—from $644,441 for Chief Jim Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation near the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray, Alta., to just $3,000 for Chief Brian Burke of B.C.’s Gitwangak Indian Band—is coming into focus.

Early attention was dominated by the revelation that Chief Ron Giesbrecht, of the the tiny Kwikwetlem First Nation in British Columbia’s lower mainland, took home an eye-popping $914,219 for the 12 months that ended last March 31. Incredulous news reports of Giesbrecht’s pay were followed by angry protests from some members of his First Nation, which has just 35 members living on its reserve. Giesbrecht’s huge windfall last year came as a result of the band’s decision to pay him a 10 per cent bonus on economic development deals he struck. When the B.C. government paid the Kwikwetlem First Nation about $8 million to walk away from its claim to a valuable piece of property, he hit the jackpot. In fact, his bonus was so outlandish, the generous, untaxed pay of other chiefs briefly seemed modest by comparison. They probably owe him a thank-you.

Of the 327 chiefs whose reported pay Maclean’s was able to tabulate, 35 made more than $100,000 in untaxed base salary. The median salary was $62,426. In fact, a large cluster of chiefs—143 of the 327—made between $50,000 and $75,000 in normal salary in the 2014 fiscal year. It’s key to keep in mind that earnings claimed on reserves are not subject to income tax. So a chief’s untaxed income of $60,000 is the equivalent—according to the tax-converter tool provided by the consulting firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young)—to regular taxable income of about $80,000, while a Canadian would typically have to earn $150,000 to reap after-tax income of about $100,000, depending on the province.


Making comparisons among First Nations, though, is fraught with difficulty. There’s no strict consistency in how bands report the income of their chiefs and councillors, so the figures must be approached cautiously. Some report a flat salary, many separately tally up “honoraria” based on factors such as the number of meetings attended, and others also break out income from other band jobs. Then there are expenses, especially for travel, which are often significant. Taking into account all remuneration, including expenses, the number of chiefs who cost their bands more than $100,000 a year jumped to 105 of the 327. Loon River’s Noskey, for instance, claimed $77,218 in travel expenses he collected last year. He says he needs to be in Edmonton, a five-hour drive from Loon River, nearly every week for meetings with government officials and oil industry executives. Another key factor is the common practice of chiefs collecting a second salary for holding another band staff position. Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton, N.S., for example, made $70,000 as chief, another $110,000 as the band’s acting chief executive, while claiming $33,921 in travel expenses.

Not surprisingly, many chiefs are angry that the federal government is exposing them to critical attention over what they make. Some complain their pay levels are often compared to those of the mayors of towns and cities near their reserves. Those contrasts can be stark. For instance, Chief Darren Whitford of Alberta’s oil-rich O’Chiese First Nation, with an on-reserve population of 842, earned $164,453, and charged $100,778 in travel and other expenses, while Mayor Fred Nash of nearby Rocky Mountain House, with a population of about 7,500, says he made about $42,000, on which, of course, he paid income tax.

But Chief Terence McBride of the Timiskaming First Nation in Quebec, an outspoken critic of the transparency act, scoffs at the notion that even mayors of much larger communities shoulder anything near the political and administrative burdens of chiefs. McBride, who earns $60,000 as the Timiskaming chief, says First Nations leaders have to handle files such as health and education, often negotiating for funding and services with Ottawa and sometimes provincial governments. But municipalities generally leave education and health to the provinces, which have jurisdiction over the fields. The economic development challenges faced by chiefs, McBride adds, are usually more pressing than mayors confront. “Obviously, if you look at the responsibility that a mayor has and the responsibility that a chief has, it’s night and day,” he says.

The sources of chief and band-councillor pay also raise complicated questions. The federal government transfers money to bands based on formulas that take into account factors such as population and location. Some bands pay their elected officials only out of those federal funds. Others supplement chiefs and councillors with revenues from band-owned businesses. Don Maracle, the veteran chief of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in Ontario, collected a salary of just $33,180 last year, an amount he says was dictated by what Ottawa allocates his community for administration. But he defends the right of First Nations that have other revenue streams to pay as much as they see fit. Maracle argues that shouldn’t be a distraction from what he calls “chronic underfunding” for social services, economic development and other pressing needs on many reserves.

Chief Debra Hanuse of the ‘Namgis First Nation, which shares Cormorant Island with the village of Alert Bay off the north coast of Vancouver Island, is another chief whose pay, $23,359, is far below the norm. She’s a lawyer who recently moved back from Vancouver to lead her home community, where a decline in the fishing industry has hit the local economy hard. But Hanuse isn’t critical of chiefs who far out-earn her. “Each community has to decide, and you can’t just lump everyone together,” she says. “In some circumstances, you can’t recruit qualified persons to communities that are remote. When you’re taking people away from the chance to make a living, obviously, decisions are going to have to be made about how to compensate your leadership.”

Coming from a modestly paid chief, that plea for First Nations to be left alone when it comes to setting their politicians’ pay carries a certain credibility. Yet it seems unlikely to be heeded. Outside critics, led by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, are focused on the issue. And, after all, even bands with their own revenue sources also typically collect millions in federal transfers. Attention seems bound to grow, and could peak soon after that end-of-November deadline for all bands to file disclosure documents with Aboriginal Affairs. Even if no more cases as explosive as Giesbrecht’s turn up, First Nations leaders must brace themselves for a tougher debate about what they are paid.


—with files from Nick Taylor-Vaisey


What the transparency act reveals about the pay of Aboriginal politicians

  1. There are few surprises, here. Many of us saw a lot of the more outrageous fiscal abuses coming. We also knew that not every chief or band manager was dipping deep into the cookie jar. But, because the funds allocated to Indian bands are confiscated from the mainstream of society, we have a right to know how that money is being dispersed. Now we know. Some of the things we are learning still give us concerns. If the band-owned companies that Jim Boucher of the Fort Mackay band oversees are successful enough that he is worth $640K/yr, then there should be ample enough money that the band needs to be declared self-sufficient and federal funds reduced accordingly.
    At the same time, there needs to be some form of balance in other areas. If bands wish to limit or refuse economic development in their regions, then there should be fiscal consequences as well. The tax money that supports band housing and schools comes from the confiscation of the earnings of those engaged in commercial enterprises. It is wholly unrealistic to expect that there should be any flow of money from other parts of the country if native groups wish to oppose commercial activities in their own back yards.

    • Firefighters, police, doctors, teachers……all public money….and yet not a peep out of you.

      • Well Emilyone . . . not a fair comparison since every day these actual heroes (for the most part) go to work, they are putting their own life on the line in performing their jobs, not so for Chiefs or band councils. Furthermore, it is taxpayers money funding these chiefs salaries so the least that can be expected is fiscal responsibility and reporting to the taxpayers . . . period! When the average Canadian works hard and pays more than exorbitant taxes they tend to get a little cranky when there is such fiscal mismanagement, waste and fraud it is no wonder they lose their patience with the ongoing saga’s that are the majority of Canada’s first nation leadership.

        • Well for one thing they aren’t heroes….they are people doing their jobs…..but they are paid for with public money. Whether they do a good, bad or indifferent job….we pay them.

          Public money pays for a lot of things….but only FN leaders get complained about.

          If Canadians would stop being racist and straighten out 3 centuries of their own mismanagement we wouldn’t have these silly complaints.

      • Oh, I’ve had plenty to say about the pay and pension structure of our.public employees. There is an ongoing disconnect between the earnings of most public sector employees, who work in the not-for-profit sector, and the earnings and pensions of the Canadians who work in the for-profit private sector.
        There are thousands of public workers who will retire at income levels that are simply unattainable by private sector workers who enjoyed consistently higher earnings, let alone those whose earnings were comparable, and the reason for it is that public sector managers consistently kept details of public contracts in the shadows and safe from public scrutiny.
        There are all sorts of millionaires and billionaires who don’t see a nickle of my money because I don’t do business with them. I don’t have the same freedom of choice about refusing to do business with millionaire public workers.

        • The reason why top public workers get paid what they do is to retain them….so they don’t go to the private sector.

          • I didn’t know police officers were being siphoned off into the private sector (or teachers, or firefighters or most public sector employees). In fact most of them would have a really difficult time functioning in the private sector.

            Public school teachers often think that they can become corporate trainers. It rarely works out well because most can only do stand up training, whereas the job of a corporate trainer is to develop/design the instruction – something which most teachers don’t do – they are trained to teach the provincial curriculum. Someone else does the development.

        • Funny, where was your outrage when the feds scooped $30 billion ‘surplus’ from the public sector pension fund Oct/2000 to pay down the deficit.
          Already I am receiving letters advising me that our pension is going to be cut….are you going to be outraged on my behalf?

      • But I know what they make – it is in the public accounts. And more to the point I know what their jobs involve so I can make a judgment at to the value of their work for the money paid.

    • The funds allocated to Oil & Gas & manufacturing co are also confiscated from the mainstream of a society…..Frank Stronach after the windfall of $860 million buyout in 2010, scooped $30 million to $52 million each and every year from 2011 to 2013 consulting fees…..O & G CEO’s take $billions from the feds and get paid $millions each and every year.
      In this context the chiefs are VASTLY under compensated.

      • Frank Stronach takes his windfall from his shareholders only. Those shareholders each get a yearly vote on their company’s leadership, their pay packets (indirectly), and the composition of the board of directors.
        Aboriginal leaders are paid by all Canadian taxpayers. We get no chance to vote for or against these aboriginal leaders.

        • How did you confuse the constitution and treaty rights with capitalism??

          You’re paying rent.

          ‘Got land? Thank an Indian’

          • That’s a tiresome argument since all land was once occupied by others who were displaced by modern occupants. Sooner or later, one either needs to get over it and join the rest of the world or continue to segregate oneself and brood about it. The current state of natives in this country is pathetic and harmful to them and I believe they would be better served by joining the rest of us as productive members of society.

          • The only reason you find it ‘tiresome’ Canadian Moxie….is because you have yet to honour the treaties.

          • Got reading? Thank whitey
            Got math? thank Whitey
            Got a car/ truck? Thank whitey
            Got electricity?
            Got a big-screen Tv?…

            You get the idea.

  2. Shame that someone removed the accountability mirrors
    from the CTF’s HQ.

  3. . It’s key to keep in mind that earnings claimed on reserves are not subject to income tax.

    It’s odd that you’ve chosen to highlight this and the fact non status Canadians would to earn considerably more gross pay in order to get the same take home cheque. Just what is your point? Should the gross pay of chiefs be garnished to reflect that fact perhaps? No tax on reserve is a right guaranteed in the Indian act to compensate for living on reserve – precisely so they don’t have to pack up and desert them purely for monetary reasons. I fail to see the point you are trying to make.

    • As Linda McQuaig said today ‘I turn to Maclean’s if I want to know what idea conservatives will be pushing next.’

      • You can be as self righteous as you want but as long as leaders like Chief Spence keep the fiscal mismanagement on the forefront your arguments are moot!

      • And yet here you are . . . posting to your hearts content. Some people would call that hypocrisy at its finest!

  4. If it were me, I would get rid of the Aboriginal Affairs Department, and just give the money to each aboriginal Canadian on reserve a cheque, and forced their self-governments to tax their own members.

    Then, one would have accountable government, and they couldn’t blame the white man for interfering.

  5. I’d be interested to know what Chief Nancy Spence makes a year.
    She of course was the famous ‘hunger striker’ Chief of the ‘idle no more’ campaign of 2012 in Ottawa.
    To me; she didn’t seem to be losing any weight, had hotel visits daily (only for rest of course) while her band seem to be in extended poverty while she and her family lived off the tax payer.
    How much does she make?

    • $69,575
      Attawapiskat publishes its salaries, travel expenses and honorariums (again, nothing being hidden). Chief Theresa Spence was paid $69,575 in salary and honorariums in 2010-2011, and had $1,798 in travel expenses for a total of about $71K.

      • So whats the excuse for the fiscal mismanagement of the band then . . . or do you believe she does great work? As long as these are the figureheads the average Canadian read about, there is very little hope for gaining any sympathy!

        • Your ‘sympathy’ is irrelevant. We owe them the money.

          • Just my opinion, but it would be nice to see better integration into the Canadian society for natives (I’m 1/8). I’m sorry for the natives, but I don’t think white man is going to pack up and leave anytime soon. If we look back at history, usually the conquerer took over the land and integrated the natives. Does Spain give handouts to central and southern Amercian countries? Does the Syrian Government give handouts to rebel town that were conquered? Will Russia give $$$ to the natives of Bosnia? It sucks and it’s not easy, but at some point you need to accept the present and let go of how you think it should be or how it was.

          • Easy for you to say, Emily.

            You have all the “white guilt” the native industry wants you to feel…..but you don’t pay taxes so the “money owed” won’t be coming out of your pocket.

      • Emily,

        almost 80% of the money that went through Attawaspikat under Spence could never be accounted for.

        I would suspect that the majority of it is in a Swiss Account somewhere, along with the numerous houses she may have bought outside of Canada.

        she was/is a crook who screwed her own people.

    • When that “hunger strike” then called a “liquid diet”…..was 30 days in progress, I gave her my own “indian name”

      I just called her, “Chief Double-chin-starving-in-tent”

      I think everyone knows this was just a stunt to deflect from her blatant corruption and abuse of the taxpayers who thought they were supporting the reserve.

  6. It is very confusing how the salaries are determined. I believe accordingly there must be someplace where a Chief can be assessed, evaluated and most of all pro rated on his or her credentials. For instance, on the Blood Indian Reserve, the current Chief is functionally illiterate and has never completed a post secondary accreditation of anything. Also, he perpetuated and is believed sexually molested tribal members at the residential schools.

    Aboriginal Affairs Canada is totally out to lunch and must be held accountable for allowing this buffoonery to be allowed in a democratic society. According to the treaties, at least in treaty 7 the Chief’s salary is $25 per year and Councillors $15 per year.

    The Government of Canada through Aboriginal Affairs allow this to ferment and flourish; the gravy train must stop! this year the Transparency and Accountability legislation passed and at their Lands department(Blood Band) a staff member is openly pilfering the department and the Chief and Council allow this and receive portions of these extra fees.

  7. I am quite surprised at how reasonable the pay levels are. The key is in the bonuses.

    If a band has access to extra revenue there should be some incentive to keep top management. Do they still receive the same level of federal funding as other bands?

    You could remedy that by making any future increases in funding needs-based. So four or five years down the road the wealthier bands are getting relatively less because they do have the access to other revenue streams.

    • Shoop,

      When you look at these numbers provided….bear in mind; the CBC reports that Peter Mansbridge only has a base salary of $80,000.

      I would ask these Indian bands to explain and report their “incidentals” or Hospitality expenses, travel, etc.

      The money is going somewhere, it is is apparently not going to those who we are trying to support.

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