Posted on November 23, 2010

Native Chiefs Earn More Than PM

Kenyon Wallace, National Post (Toronto), November 21, 2010

Scores of First Nations chiefs and council members earn more than the Prime Minister of Canada, according to newly released data obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation–a revelation that is prompting calls for greater financial transparency on native reserves.

The figures, obtained through access to information requests, reveal that in 2008-09, over 80 reserve politicians earned more than the after-tax income of $184,000 made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the same period. The data also shows that 222 reserve politicians were paid more in tax-free income in 2008-09 than their respective provincial premiers, who averaged an after-tax income of $109,893.

One reserve politician in Atlantic Canada was found to have been paid a combined tax-free salary and honorarium totaling an astounding $978,468.

“This shocking information confirms what we’ve been saying all along: there are a lot of reserve politicians that are blatantly abusing their powers to set their own pay levels and hide it from the public,” said Colin Craig, prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “It’s absolutely disgusting and band members should be outraged about this.”

Even while thousands of First Nations members continue to live in abject poverty, more than 700 reserve politicians earned an income equivalent to over $100,000 off reserve, according to the data

While the names of individual chiefs and councillors of the more than 570 reserves have been blacked out, the released records disclose salaries, honorariums and travel expenses, painting the most complete picture to date of the remuneration–and bizarre accounting practices–of First Nations leadership across the country.

On one reserve of only 304 members in Atlantic Canada, the chief earned a total, tax-free income of $243,000 last year. The three councillors on that reserve were each paid more than $200,000 in band salaries, travel per diems and honoraria. One council member on that reserve earned a salary of $7,500, but a further $322,103 in “other” remuneration, according to the data.

Eighty-two native politicians received higher salaries last year than the prime minister. Eighteen of those rich salaries went to politicians on reserves in British Columbia, 47 in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan, five in Manitoba, one in Ontario and nine in Atlantic Canada, according to the tally by the taxpayers federation.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada refuses to publicly connect names with the numbers, although First Nations salaries and expenses are paid for out of $7-billion in annual transfers from the federal government.

INAC spokeswoman Genevieve Guibert said the government cannot reveal the names of the high earners due to a decades-old court ruling prohibiting the publication of salary information. She said disclosing such data could violate privacy laws because many salaries are a combination of government money and income earned from band-owned businesses, such as gas stations and casinos.

The government plays no part in determining the salaries of First Nations politicians, she said, noting that it is up to reserve residents to decide if compensation levels are appropriate or not.

“The department of course encourages First Nations to practice sound fiscal management by setting compensation at reasonable levels with the duties and responsibilities of the position and to be mindful of the overall needs of the community,” Ms. Guibert said.

The Assembly of First Nations, which represents Canada’s band chiefs, declined to comment on the salary records Monday. Earlier this month, however, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo lashed out at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, calling its campaign to publicize native political incomes as “an insult that paints First Nations leadership as overpaid, unaccountable local bosses, uninterested in the challenges faced by First Nations citizens.

“I know the men and women they slander,” wrote Atleo in a column posted on the AFN website. “I see their daily struggles as committed leaders, and I meet them on the job, on reserve, every week across Canada.”

But Senator Patrick Brazeau called the data a “shocking indictment” of the lack of accountability in many First Nations communities.

“It’s imperative that accountability and transparency to community members be legislated,” Sen. Brazeau said in a statement Monday. “We have, through the efforts of grassroots band members who have contacted the CTF, a growing body of evidence that demonstrates little if any appetite for proactive disclosure by these politicians.”

He is urging MPs of all political stripes to support the passage of Bill C-575, a private member’s bill put forward by Conservative Kelly Block last month that seeks to make public all First Nations chiefs’ and councillors’ salaries and expenses.

“First Nations governments are responsible for determing their salaries and other forms of compensation and my bill does not change that, nor does it actually judge the levels they’ve set,” Ms. Block said. “What it does do though is ensure they are held accountable for the salaries and expenses that they have set for themselves.” The bill is up for its first hour of debate in the House of Commons Thursday.

Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan was unavailable for comment Monday.