By Jesse Ferreras, Pique Newsmagazine
December 16, 2010
By now you’ve heard that First Nation chiefs make too much money, and the predictable Canadian uproar that has come along with it.
The uproar began with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a non-profit group devoted to lowering taxes and reducing government waste, put out a news release revealing that over 600 Native politicians are earning a “taxable equivalent of over $100,000 to govern average reserve populations of 1,142.”
The federation goes on to point out that a native politician from a community of just over 300 people is getting a tax-free salary of $978,468 – a taxable equivalent of $1.8 million, according to the news release.
The federation claims it is doing this to help band members “blow the whistle” on their politicians, and is thus asking the federal government to pass a private members’ bill that will give it the authority to place reserve politicians’ salaries online.
Now there is nothing wrong with holding officials accountable for high wages. In B.C. municipalities we see salaries going up and up and digging ever further into taxpayers’ wallets. At this paper I’ve helped lead a chorus of boos against rising salaries in our own community.
But I wonder whether the federation is targeting the right people. Placing chiefs’ salaries online certainly maximizes accountability for reserve politicians, but it also lays the blame on people who’ve simply exploited the loopholes of a colonial governance system.
The system itself reaches back to the early days of Confederation, when the federal government passed the Indian Act, a law that legislated aboriginals as wards of the state. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, informed Parliament at the time that it was the country’s duty to “do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian peoples in all respects to the inhabitants of the Dominion.”
Among other things, the Act prescribed a governance model that the federal government could understand and control. It allowed First Nations to govern reserve lands held by the Crown and governance would be administered by bands, with councils that had one chief and anywhere between two and 12 councillors, depending on population.
The councils would have the authority to regulate traffic; provide for the health of on-reserve residents; observe law and order; and prevent disorderly conduct, to name but a few provisions in the Act.
The system marked a dramatic departure from the Royal Proclamation of 1763, a statement by King George III that recognized aboriginal groups as self-governing nations, a third order of government that allowed First Nations fiefdom over Crown lands, unfettered by government control or interference.
The succeeding Confederation saw it as its duty to assimilate aboriginals and make them Canadians, prescribing a governance system that was convenient and understandable on a people that, for the government, were themselves neither convenient nor understandable.
What I cannot do at this point is draw a direct line between the imposition of the Indian Act and the exorbitant salaries enjoyed by native politicians. What’s clear, however, is that aboriginals working within that system learned how to exploit loopholes and make themselves rich.
They took a system that stole their independence and found a way to thumb their noses at a government that has tried in vain to assimilate them.
The Assembly of First Nations has responded to the uproar over native salaries with a vow of “limited transparency” on chiefs’ salaries, according to a Postmedia News story from Tuesday. That same day the Assembly passed a resolution requiring band officials to make audits, public accounts, salaries and expenses available to members, and not necessarily to Canadians.
I think it’s the wrong approach. I think the Canadian government should apologize for selfishly foisting a system of governance on First Nations that has allowed such a situation to come to pass. They should not, as they have, call on band members to rise up against their chiefs and demand accountability. They should take responsibility themselves in a way that doesn’t heap blame on clever politicians who learned how to exploit a broken system.
In short, the federal government should not download its responsibilities on to other parties. The federation should hold it to account in a way that doesn’t heap shame and suspicion on people who don’t really deserve it.