Most chiefs mum on pay

The revelation that many First Nation chiefs in Canada earn more than the Prime Minister raises the question: just how much do Yukon's chiefs take home, anyway? There's no quick way of finding out.

The revelation that many First Nation chiefs in Canada earn more than the Prime Minister raises the question: just how much do Yukon’s chiefs take home, anyway?

There’s no quick way of finding out.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation cobbled together data on chief salaries with numbers disclosed by Ottawa. But the names of individual First Nations were blacked-out.

In any case, many Yukon First Nations aren’t included in the list obtained by the federation. That’s because all 11 with final agreements are considered self-governing, and, as such, they don’t follow the same financial disclosure rules as bands under the Indian Act.

So the News made repeated efforts to call each chief. We gave them five working days to respond to a request to disclose how much they earned, in the spirit of openness and accountability.

The results? Three disclosed. Eleven didn’t.

Math’ieya Alatini, who was elected chief of the Kluane First Nation in August, will earn $82,000 this year.

Why did she disclose this? “Why not?” she said. “There’s nothing to hide.”

“I make as much as a junior manager at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada,” said Alatini. “I’m not even equivalent to a regional director.”

But she does earn more than Whitehorse’s mayor, Bev Buckway, who receives $77,000.

The Kluane First Nation, based in Burwash Landing, had a registered population of 142, as of October. Whitehorse had a population of 26,418, as of June, according to the territory’s statistics branch.

Alatini, like all First Nation Yukoners, has to pay taxes – unlike chiefs elsewhere in Canada, whose earnings are often tax-free.

Chief Liard McMillan with Liard First Nation will gross $69,550 this year. He disclosed this “for reasons of accountability.” He’s also fighting a heated election campaign.

He earns less than his disgraced predecessor, Daniel Morris, earned up until 2003, McMillan added. He sent the News a letter signed by his director of finance that verifies his salary.

Simon Mervyn, chief of the Nacho Nyak Dun, called on Wednesday. “I take home $85,000 a year. Is that too much?”

He’s kidding. “My gross is about $70,000,” he said. “It’s peanuts.”

He earned more working as a heavy equipment operator. But he likes being chief better. He just wishes he could persuade his members he’s worth more.

“Can you do an editorial that says a First Nation chief in the Yukon is in dire need of a raise?”

Mark Wedge, chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, says he has no problem disclosing his pay to members. But he won’t share it with reporters, said executive assistant Beverly Sembsmoen on Tuesday.

“He questions why there’d be a story about that. So his instructions to me is to forget about it,” she said. “He doesn’t trust the media.”

She was asked if Wedge would be willing to talk about this. She said she’d pass the message along.

“If he doesn’t phone you, you know his answer.” He never called.

James Allen, chief of the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations, declined to disclose how much he earned. “I don’t want to,” he said on Tuesday, after he answered his cellphone.

Why? “If it’s going to be taken in a negative connotation, I don’t want to be part of this. It’s my choice.”

David Johnny Sr., chief of White River First Nation, said on November 26 he would consider disclosing his salary. “I’d have to ask the lawyers and council. We don’t even give that information to the members.”

As the chief of a tiny First Nation without a final agreement, Johnny said he doesn’t earn much compared to his old salary as a heavy equipment operator. “I’m lucky my wife works,” he said.

Still, members often suspect he earns far more than he does. “They thought I was making shitloads of money,” he said.

But Johnny never called back, and the phone at his First Nation’s office rang off the hook in the following days.

Joe Linklater, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin, presides over one of the most financially transparent First Nations in the Yukon. Unlike any other, his organization actually posts its financial statements online.

But those statements don’t include a break-down of how much chief and council are paid. And Linklater never returned repeated calls to his cellphone and office.

Nor did Brenda Sam, chief of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council.

Or Eddie Taylor, chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.

Or Peter Johnston, chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council.

Or Darin Isaac, chief of the Selkirk First Nation.

Or Mike Smith, chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.

Or Eddie Skookum, chief of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.

Or Jack Caesar, chief of the Ross River Dena Council.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation found that more than 700 chiefs in Canada earned more than $100,000 last year. Eighty-two received more than Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who earned $315,462 that year.

And in one instance, a native politician from the Glooscap First Nation of Nova Scotia took home $978,468, tax-free. That’s the taxable equivalent of $1.8 million.

No outlandish salaries were paid to chiefs with unsettled land claims in the Yukon, according to the numbers, which don’t identify First Nations but are grouped by jurisdiction.

The highest salary was paid to a chief of a Yukon First Nation with 451 members, who received $78,296. At the low end, a chief of a Yukon First Nation with 83 members earned $47,059.

“Politicians, no matter their ethnicity or level of government, should have to disclose their salaries to the public,” said Colin Craig, a director with the federation.

“It’s the first step in accountability. Naturally, people want to know how much their elected leaders are making.”

And it’s largely tax dollars that are being spent. Ottawa transferred $62 million to Yukon’s self-governing First Nations in 2008-09, and $66.75 million in 2009-10.

First Nations 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.

There’s a recourse for members of a First Nation that’s still under the Indian Act. If they complain to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, federal officials will first try to work with the First Nation, but, if necessary, Ottawa will disclose the First Nation’s financial documents to members.

The federation has set up a website that shows how to do this, at www.reservetransparency.ca.

But it won’t be much use to Yukoners who belong to a First Nation with a final agreement. These agreements require chiefs to be financially accountable to their members. But Indian Affairs doesn’t police these rules.

Instead, it’s up to individual members to reward accountable leaders, and punish secretive ones, when they cast their ballots next election.

There’s also a push underway in Parliament to require First Nations to publicly disclose how much they pay their chiefs and council. It’s Bill C-575, a private member’s bill floated by Kelly Block, the Conservative MP from Saskatchewan.

But even if the bill becomes law – and it doesn’t look like it will, as all three opposition parties oppose the measure – it wouldn’t affect Yukon’s self-governing First Nations either.

Correction, Monday, December 6, 2010:An earlier version of this article stated, erroneously, that Alatini didn’t pay taxes because she wasn’t a status Indian. In fact, she is a status Indian, and all First Nation Yukoners have paid taxes since 1999.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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