Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First Nations event shouted down

Backer of financial accountability act met with drumming, verbal protest

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A woman who pushed for financial transparency at Peguis First Nation was shouted down and drummed out of a news conference announcing the passage of the First Nations Financial Accountability Act on Wednesday.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt was in Winnipeg to announce the Bill C-27 was receiving royal assent. He applauded Phyllis Sutherland's efforts to make Peguis First Nation's finances more transparent.

The new legislation means the salaries of First Nations' officials have to be posted online, as do First Nations' audited financial statements, Valcourt said.

When he invited Sutherland to the podium to speak, her voice was drowned out by two Idle No More demonstrators, one singing and one drumming.

A man drumming loudly shouted, "oppressors," "Nazis," and "fascists" at people attending the news conference, which ended abruptly. He identified himself only as a resident of "Turtle Island" -- North America. After the news conference, Valcourt met again with reporters but was interrupted by the demonstrator who yelled at Valcourt for demanding fiscal transparency from First Nations when so many reserves still don't have running water.

Pam Palmater, an Idle No More leader who ran unsuccessfully for grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told reporters afterward that the call for fiscal accountability is part of a Conservative "smear campaign" to discredit First Nations people. The notion that financial problems on reserves are the fault of mismanagement by leaders getting rich while band members suffer in appalling poverty is a "myth," said Palmater. "It's based on unfounded allegations."

She said there are still First Nations without Internet access that won't be able to post financial info online.

First Nations supporters of Sutherland and the new legislation said they don't understand why the protesters have a problem with making their leaders financially accountable.

"We don't see any accountability," said Solange Garson of Split Lake, Man., who showed up at the airport hotel but missed the press conference that was cut short. The Tataskweyak Cree Nation woman said she's been fighting for a decade to get a look at the actual books of her band, which signed a half-billion-dollar deal with Manitoba Hydro. "Where did it all go? We're living in poverty. It hasn't touched us at the community level."

The passage of the legislation that puts financial information online is good for community members and their leaders, said Sutherland.

"With the implementing of Bill C-27, they're going to be more prudent with how they handle funding," she said in an interview after being drowned out at the press conference.

"We'll be able to get the information we want without being verbally attacked or intimidated, like what happened (at the press conference)." Asking questions about finances at band meetings hasn't worked for many people, Sutherland said. "They have people ready to silence you."

She said the protesters who let Valcourt speak, then shouted her down, weren't a surprise.

"I think it was a setup and it was probably our leadership," said the Peguis First Nation woman. "That's what happens when people talk about accountability on reserves. Leaders will go to great lengths to silence you."

Sutherland said Palmater was invited to speak in Peguis recently. The man whose drumming drowned out Sutherland is a regular agitator, she said. "He's been kicked out of many buildings" and believed to be from South America, not "Turtle Island," Sutherland said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2013 A11

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