By Colin Craig
It’s a sad reality that many people living on aboriginal reserves have been bullied and harassed for asking questions about how public funds have been spent in their communities.
A new law passed by the Harper government, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, helps the grassroots as it now allows them to go on the Internet and anonymously review their politicians’ pay and look at their community’s financial statements. The law brought aboriginal politicians in-line with municipal, provincial and federal politicians who have done the same for years.
Unfortunately, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau recently committed to scrap this new legislation if he becomes prime minister. Perhaps he doesn’t know the history behind the new bill and its importance to grassroots people living on many reserves.
Back in 2009, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a donation-based taxpayers watchdog organization, reached a tipping point of sorts. We kept hearing similar stories from aboriginal people living on reserves: ‘I can’t find out how much my chief makes or see my community’s financial information.’
We asked those that brought concerns to our attention about the idea of placing each reserve’s information on the Internet just like off-reserve governments do. Ottawa already received each band’s financial information annually so posting the information could be done quite easily.
The idea was a big hit. If information was posted online, people could review it anonymously and without fear of repercussions. Such a change wouldn’t address all the problems on reserves, but it would help everyone learn more about where the money was going.
As we worked with grassroots band members to push for a new law to implement such a change, we heard plenty of sad stories from aboriginal people about being bullied for speaking out. A man from Quebec told us he received a death threat for asking questions in his community. A lady from Manitoba told us a family member had her post-secondary funding cut off. A woman from B.C. told us a whistleblower’s home mysteriously burnt down while she was out of town.
Others told us it was common to have your home put to the bottom of the repair list or welfare cut if you spoke out. You could feel the lump in your throat as they told their stories. The tales we heard were simply unbecoming of a great nation like Canada.
To be clear, not every reserve has the same problems. There are plenty of chiefs and councillors who are good, honest people who are working hard to help their citizens and are already transparent. These politicians, rightfully, don’t seem concerned about the new legislation at all.
While some chiefs continue to complain about the new law, it has already proved it’s necessary. The new disclosure system recently exposed a chief from B.C. who received close to a million dollars last year tax-free. Even elected councilors on the reserve’s band council had no idea what was going on. One noted: “if it wasn’t for this new transparency act, I don’t think we ever would have known.”
To be sure, the Harper government has made its share of mistakes. But if Mr. Trudeau reaches out to the grassroots living on some of the more troubled reserves, it should become clear to him that the First Nations Financial Transparency Act isn’t one of them.
Colin Craig is the Prairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation