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Cut funding, face blockades: chiefs

Fighting back over threat from Ottawa

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OTTAWA -- Manitoba First Nations will fight back with blockades and other economic barriers if the federal government follows through with a promise to cut funding from bands who refuse to make their finances public, says a native official.

Only eight of Manitoba's 63 First Nations have so far filed documents to comply with the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. The deadline to file the documents was July 29.

The law, passed in 2013, requires all bands to post online their audited financial statements, including an audited report on the salaries and travel expenses of chiefs and band councillors. The information will also be posted on the federal government's website.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper said some First Nations are resigned to the law but others don't think it's fair. He said if federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt makes good on his threat to cut funding, First Nations will set up blockades on economic projects such as pipelines and mining exploration. "They are ready to close the pipelines," he said. "They will fight back."

MKO represents 30 First Nations in northern Manitoba.

Nationally, 236 bands have complied with the law, leaving more than 360 that have not. There are 633 First Nations in Canada.

Valcourt said this week the holdouts will have until the end of November to comply or he will impose penalties, including withholding federal funding.

"This law was put in place to ensure that First Nation band members have access to the information they require and deserve about basic financial management practices of their chief and council, and to empower them to ensure band revenues are being used for their benefit," said Erica Meekes, Valcourt's press secretary. "It applies the same principles of transparency and accountability to First Nations governments that already exist for other governments in Canada."

Mathias Colomb Chief Arlen Dumas said his council sent in the documents, but that shouldn't be taken as a sign he supports the law. He said the government was already getting all the information, and the law is a smokescreen to try to embarrass and instil stereotypes about First Nations governments.

"The real issue is that we are chronically underfunded, but instead of dealing with that, they want to make us all look like we are corrupt," he said.

He said he has heard of a few bands in Saskatchewan and British Columbia that are refusing to comply, but said most of those who haven't are probably waiting for other reports to come in first. He said the deadline imposed in the law is arbitrary and doesn't take into account certain program reports are not available on time.

In December 2010, chiefs from Canada's First Nations unanimously endorsed a motion to make their salaries public hoping it would stop criticism chiefs were being overpaid at the expense of their band members. But many were livid when Ottawa stepped in to make a non-binding resolution enforceable by federal law.

Those who applauded the law, including some band members who said they could not get information on their own band's finances, hoped the new requirements would force signs of corruption out into the open.

When the first reports were made public last week, they showed most of the chiefs' salaries to be reasonable. However, a lot of attention was paid to the tiny band of Kwikwetlem First Nation in British Columbia, whose chief was paid a total of $914,219 in 2013.

Dumas said the focus on that proves the law isn't about fairness but is instead a bit of a witch hunt.

The eight bands in Manitoba that have complied so far are Black River, Buffalo Point, Gamblers, Keeseekoowenin, Lake Manitoba, Mathias Colomb, Rolling River and Swan Lake.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2014 A5

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Updated on Friday, August 8, 2014 at 10:58 AM CDT: FIxed photos, cutlines.

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