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Stephen Harper and the myth of the crooked Indian
By Pamela Palmater | November 26, 2014
Can you think of any Prime Minister, President or World Leader that would withhold food, water, or health care as a bullying tactic to force its citizens into compliance with a new government law, policy or scheme? Can you ever imagine this happening in Canada? I don’t think most of us could.
Yet, this is exactly what is happening with Harper’s implementation of the illegal C-27. Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt has threatened to cut off funds for food, water and health care if First Nations do not get in line and abide by this new legislation — despite the fact that it was imposed without legal consultation and is now being legally challenged. How many First Nations children will have to die for Harper to sit down and work this out with First Nations?
Bill C-27 (formerly C-575), the First Nation Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA), is the classic deflection tactic by Harper’s Conservatives to distract Canadians from the extreme poverty in many First Nations and Canada’s role in maintaining those conditions. The solution to chronic underfunding of essential human services like water, food, and housing lay not in more legislation, but in addressing the problem: the underfunding. Presenting accountability legislation as the solution implies that First Nations are the cause of their own poverty — a racist stereotype Harper’s Conservatives use quite frequently to divide community members from their leaders and Canadians from First Nations.
Stereotype of the “crooked Indian”
This racist stereotype is recycled again and again when Harper is pressed to account for the fourth world conditions in some First Nations. The response always seem to be: “Well, we gave them x million dollars, where did all the money go?” What Harper never tells Canadians is that in giving First Nations x million dollars, that he has given them half of what is needed to provide the specific program or service. Without all the facts, this propaganda serves to distance Canadians from First Nations.
In the last couple of years, Harper has been hit hard in the media about Canada’s persistent failure to address the basic needs of First Nations. The following high-profile poverty-related crises in First Nations meant that Harper needed some instant damage control and distraction — which he got with C-27:
Cindy Blackstock’s discrimination case for inequitable child and family service funding to First Nations kids in care;
Numerous housing, water and suicide crises and states of emergency in individual First Nations;
Auditor General’s numerous findings related to inequitable funding in housing, water and education;
RCMP’s report about over-representation of murdered and missing Indigenous women; and
United Nations finding that Canada’s human rights violations leads to “abysmal” poverty in First Nations despite Canada’s enormous wealth;
The Cons also use third parties, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, to advance their racist propaganda and deflect from the real issues. How many times have we heard the phrase “millionaire chiefs” or “exhorbitant salaries”? Yet there has never been a millionaire Chief in the history of Indian Act Chiefs. Canada has failed to show where any Chief ever received a million dollar salary from federal funding.
But let’s pretend all 633 Chiefs in Canada got million dollar salaries (which they do not). That would mean $633 million dollars a year in salary to Chiefs. The annual budget for First Nation programs and services is approximately $10 billion. It would be pretty hard to argue that six per cent of the budget going to give all Chiefs a million dollar salary would be the actual cause of First Nation poverty.
We simply can’t have this conversation around accountability without the facts. The facts are this: the average Canadian salary is $46,000 per year. The average elected First Nation leader’s salary is $36,000 per year. Yet, there are numerous municipal librarians making $100,000 a year to manage books, while First Nation leaders must manage human lives.
“Burdensome” reporting a red herring
But why are we even talking about salaries when we should be talking about funding First Nation food, water and housing? That’s because of C-27 FNFTA and all the media hype around an alleged lack of transparency in First Nations. There are critical problems with this legislation which make it both unconstitutional and illegal:
It was done without legal consultation, accommodation and consent of First Nations;
it’s a direct interference with inherent First Nation jurisdiction; and
it violates their internationally protected First Nation right to be self-determining.
FNFTA states that its purpose is to “enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations” — which presumes, of course, that this is lacking. The Act itself provides that:
financial statements must be audited yearly;
it must include a schedule of salaries and expenses of Chiefs and Councillors;
Canada can publish the information on the Internet; and
copies of the audits must be provided by First Nations to their band members.
These may seem like harmless provisions, except when you realize that First Nations already have to submit audited financial statements every year, or their funding can be cut off. First Nations band members have always had the right to obtain copies of their First Nation audits — either directly from the First Nation or from Indian Affairs.
What’s not obvious in this Act or its associated rhetoric, is that First Nations are the most accountable governments on the entire planet! The Auditor General has made very disturbing findings about the level to which First Nations must report on their federal funding — a “burdensome” 60,000 reports a year! That’s over 95 reports per First Nation every year or one report every three days. The Auditor General even found that many of these reports are not even read by federal bureaucrats. So what’s the problem?
Enacting FNFTA seems more like an exercise in smearing First Nation leaders, than addressing any real glaring omission in accountability. And, with the Harper government, there is always a hidden gem. While he is turning community members against their leaders and distracting Canadians from the real issue of underfunding, here is what Harper is REALLY doing in this Act:
Reporting of any salary, income or expenses of Chiefs and Councillors made in the personal capacity;
First Nations must make their audits accessible to the PUBLIC on the Internet for at least 10 years;
Refusal by a First Nation to comply with any of these provisions means Canada can cut funding.
So let’s look at each of these provisions more closely.
Imagine if any political leaders in Canada had to report their personal wealth in addition to the salary of their public office. Prime Minister Harper is the sixth highest paid political leader in the world with a salary of approximately $300,000 per year. Harper not only makes seven times what the average Canadian makes, but makes far more than other world leaders with much larger populations and economies.
But let’s forget about his salary for a minute. What is Prime Ministers and federal politicians had to publicly disclose their personal wealth? Then we are no longer talking about over-paid Prime Ministers, we are talking about million-dollar Prime Ministers. Stephen Harper’s personal wealth has been estimated at $5 million. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin is in the hundreds of millions. Why the double standard? Why did so many federal MPs refuse to disclose their own expenses? I agree there is an issue of accountability in Canada, but it’s with the federal government, and not First Nations.
The other issue is about accountability and to whom? This act makes First Nations accountable to the Minister first, the Canadian public second, and lastly to their band members. This Act does nothing to improve accountability of leaders generally to their membership. In fact, band members will not get any information that they were not entitled to previously. What is new is that the Canadian public has a new right to access that information. One has to wonder why that is the case. Canadians don’t participate in First Nation governments, they don’t vote for the leaders, and they certainly don’t pay for their programs and services — despite that persistent myth.
There is no reason for Canadians to have access to this information — especially any information related to First Nation personal financial information. Some lawyers have even argued that this Act creates not only a double and higher standard on First Nations than on Canadian politicians; but also violates their legal privacy rights. There is simply no need for this piece of the legislation.
Here is the real issue. Harper’s bully government has been meticulous in designing heavy-handed, paternalistic legislation with extreme-force compliance mechanisms built in — and FNFTA is no exception. If First Nations do not or cannot comply, they can have all of their funding cut. We are not talking about funding for Ottawa-type expenditures like summer tulips, Canada Day fireworks, or international trips — we are talking essential human services like food, water, heat and housing. As temperatures reach -40 degrees in the north right now, this could be disastrous.
One bad leader does not corruption make
Many Idle No More grassroots citizens, Indigenous lawyers, academics, activists and leaders have come out against this legislation — not because any of us are against the general principle of open, accountable and transparent governments, but because Canada has no right to interfere in the governance of our Nations for any reason. We have never surrendered our sovereignty or right to govern ourselves. In 1997, Canada even recognized as a matter of policy, that our right to be self-governing is constitutionally protected.
I know there have been some bad individual leaders during our time. I know that some individual communities struggle with internal leadership issues. But that’s not all our communities.
I also know that we have all suffered many generations of colonization, inter-generational trauma from residential schools, and the impossible choices forced upon our leaders in managing extreme poverty.
We have so many problems because of the systemic racism, assimilatory government policies, chronic underfunding, failure to implement our treaty and Aboriginal rights; lack of access and control over our lands and resources; and federally imposed laws which tell us how to govern.
One bad leader does not justify calling in the colonizer to further control our communities. Our Nations thrived here since time immemorial and our Nations will continue for many more millennia. We can survive and heal from colonization, just as we can get past any one bad leader. We simply can’t let Harper’s racist propaganda divide us. He wants community members to invite him in to control their communities — but once he’s in, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get him back out.
Say no to FNFTA and stand with those First Nations who are resisting its illegal imposition on our communities.
-Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.-
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