When aboriginal financial transparency became all about taxpayers

Taxpayer rights were squarely in the spotlight when the aboriginal affairs committee met on Monday to talk about First Nations financial transparency.

MPs resumed analysis of C-27, a government bill that would have First Nations undertake certain financial disclosures. Last week, they heard from Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, and then from two aboriginal representatives. The latter conversation, which we chronicled in depth afterwards, was densely packed with policy. Predictably, aboriginal perspectives were front and centre.

When the committee heard from four more witnesses on Oct. 22, those perspectives weren’t quite absent, but neither were they the loudest voice at the table. In fact, the only aboriginal witness was precisely fourth loudest.

Colin Craig, the prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, pulled no punches in his opening remarks.

“I’d like to thank MPs who voted for C-575,” he said, referring to Conservative MP Kelly Block’s private members’ bill that instituted similar reforms to C-27, but died on the order paper during the last session of parliament.

“Thank you for not turning a blind eye to corruption on reserves,” Craig continued.

Almost immediately, Craig and the committee’s other witnesses sought to discredit Assembly of First Nations claims that corruption on reserves is an isolated incident. Craig said the lack of transparency on reserves is the top issue for band members that contact the CTF. He backed up that claim by referencing a two-year-old report produced by his organization that alleged, among other things, that 50 politicians on reserves earned more income than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. NDP MP Dennis Bevington questioned that report, and referenced a 2010 AFN study that took issue with CTF’s calculations. Craig replied that AFN’s data was flawed.

That exchange, as you can imagine, went nowhere fast.

Joseph Quesnel, a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, told the committee that disclosure of financials is absent in many First Nations communities. His organization undertook a survey of 3,000 aboriginal residents in prairie provinces, the Aboriginal Governance Index, and found that only 35 percent of respondents said financials were available—with a quarter of respondents saying it wasn’t.

That finding’s in stark contrast to last week’s testimony from Jody Wilson-Raybould, AFN’s regional chief in British Columbia. She said claims that financials are often unavailable are “greatly over-exaggerated, in my assessment.”

Last week, when Wilson-Raybould and Chief Darcy Bear testified before the committee, they both believed financials should be available only to band members in each community—not the general public. The message sent by Craig and his counterparts was that disclosure is in the interest of all Canadians. “They want to know,” said Craig, because they’ve heard horror stories on reserves and deserve to know where taxpayer money ends up.

John Graham, a senior executive at Patterson Creek Consulting, said expectations of what C-27 can accomplish “should be modest”—in other words, it won’t spark a cultural change that will repair every issue with First Nations governance.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Sutherland, the only band member at the table, supported the legislation because she said it would make requesting financial documents much less intimidating for band members who fear reprisal even for making such a request. She said her efforts to spark reform within her band, which reach back several years through her involvement with the Peguis Accountability Coalition, have been met with intimidation and harassment.