Harper puts spotlight on chiefs’ pay

The Harper government introduced a bill on Wednesday that would require First Nations to open their books and publicly disclose the pay of their elected officials.

The Harper government introduced a bill on Wednesday that would require First Nations to open their books and publicly disclose the pay of their elected officials.

But if Bill C-27: the First Nations Financial Transparency Act becomes law, it would only apply to Yukon’s three First Nations without land claim agreements.

One is the Liard First Nation. Its chief, Liard McMillan, said he has “no problem” with the proposed law.

But McMillan wishs the bill allowed Ottawa to launch forensic audits when community members raised concerns.

Those provisions were included in an earlier bill, pushed by Conservative MP Kelly Block, but the proposal eventually died when the last federal election was called.

A push for greater accountability for First Nation governments started a year ago, when the Canadian Taxpayers Federation asserted that 82 chiefs made more than Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and more than 160 band politicians earned more than their respective premiers.

The Assembly of First Nations responded that these figures were an exaggeration, because, among other problems, they lumped in travel expenses and other income.

It reckoned 21 chiefs earned more than their premiers did, and none took home more than the prime minister.

Last December, this newspaper asked each Yukon First Nation chief to voluntarily disclose their pay, in the spirit of open and accountable government. Initially, only three of 14 did.

Four months later, seven chiefs opted to disclose, leaving six who preferred to keep their salary secret – seven, if you include Grand Chief Ruth Massie, who also refuses to say how much she earns.

McMillan was among the first to disclose his salary. He earned $69,550.

The only holdout who’d have to disclose his pay under the proposed law would be Jack Caesar, chief of the Ross River Dena Council.

(The other holdouts are James Allen, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations; Brenda Sam, chief of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council; Darin Isaac, chief of the Selkirk First Nation; Rick O’Brien, chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation; and Eddie Skookum, chief of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.)

The highest-grossing chief to disclose is Mark Wedge of Carcross/Tagish First Nations, who earned $105,750. The lowest is David Johnny Sr., chief of the White River First Nation, who said he earned just $44,000 annually.

None earned anywhere near the salary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who receives a salary of $317,574. Nor did any chief disclose taking home more than Yukon’s premier, who received $134,903 in 2010.

Yet many made more than Whitehorse Mayor Bev Buckway, who gets $77,000.

Some chiefs were indignant to have been asked. Others didn’t see what the big deal was.

“Why not?” asked Math’ieya Alatini, chief of the Kluane First Nation, who earned $82,000. “There’s nothing to hide.”

The salaries of elected officials are routinely disclosed by city halls and provincial and territorial legislatures. But First Nation officials will frequently rebuff reporters’ requests for financial documents by explaining they only share this information with members.

Some disgruntled members, in turn, will complain that they can’t access this information, either.

Under Bill C-27, First Nations would need to post their audited financial statements online each year, along with a breakdown of the pay of chief and council. In the Yukon, the only First Nation that currently does this is the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

First Nations would also be required to provide this information to members that request it. They would be able to charge a fee, but only the cost of making copies.

The bill would allow Ottawa to punish holdouts by withholding transfer payments or cancelling financing agreements.

The NDP Opposition criticized the proposal, saying that Ottawa should instead focus on improving the living conditions on reserves.

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