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Chiefs don't answer to Ottawa

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Public disclosure of chiefs' salaries has shown most First Nations leaders in Canada on average are paid a sum that is in line with the work they do and the responsibilities they have, with certain exceptions, just like mainstream political and business leaders. But this latest round of sensationalist accusations about accountability and transparency raises a much bigger issue that needs to be resolved.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is often the instigator of these stories as they assume the role of watchdog over how governments spend our tax dollars. But as Chief Jim Bear of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation said: "This is not somebody else's tax dollars. This is our own money. They have brainwashed the Canadian public into thinking this is their money when it is not."

Bear, whose salary is nowhere near excessive (and has been disclosed to members of his community ever since he was elected, just like the salary of the chief before him) also raised the issue of to whom he is accountable. As a member of a sovereign nation, he maintains he is responsible to the people of his nation, not the federal government (and certainly not to some group like the CTF).

Plus, the amount of money provided by the federal government is becoming less of a percentage of First Nations revenues year by year. First Nations are developing businesses that are put at a disadvantage if their competitors are privy to information they can obtain freely over the Internet.

And so we must settle the matter of who "owns" the money collected by the federal government and allotted to First Nations, and whom the First Nations are accountable to once and for all to avoid clouding up this issue again and again.

When we look back at Canadian history, we know treaties were signed between First Nations and Canadian governments that placed indigenous people on small tracts of land after they agreed to share the resources the newcomers wanted to develop for economic gain from the vast area of riches that is Canada. There were also promises from the Canadians to provide rations, tools, medical care, education and so on.

And great wealth was attained from the development of the lands formerly inhabited by indigenous peoples. The federal government collected a good share of this wealth through taxes and, each year, a certain amount of funds were set aside that were called "Indian monies," the money that was to pay for Canada's obligations under treaty.

It gets complicated here because the Canadian government passed an Indian Act without consulting First Nations, set up a department of Indian Affairs and brought the churches in to help deliver education, but the basic idea never changed. The money that supported the Indian Act, paid for the DIA bureaucracy and helped pay for the schools was "Indian money." It was just being spent by the feds unwisely and without consultation with the people who were owed that money under treaty.

And this is how First Nations view the allocations being made through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development today. They maintain this is their money, and it should be distributed to them through a transfer payment between governments. And it is up to them to decide how this money should be spent and how it should be accounted for.

First Nations leaders completely agree there must be total transparency and accountability and most have been complying under previous guidelines. Their argument is they are accountable to their own nation and not an "outside government."

We rarely see an official representative of the federal government (politician or bureaucrat) refer to the allocation provided annually to First Nations as tax dollars. They leave that up to groups such as the CTF, which misleads the Canadian public by being selective with information from our shared history and then sensationalizes the story further by using selected examples that distort the issue (the average salary of First Nations chiefs across Canada has been found to be reasonable time and time again).

We will all be further ahead by being honest, full and fair. Yes, it is a good thing there is a mechanism for grassroots people to know the salaries that are being paid to their political leaders, but this was already in place and steps were being taken to correct whatever abuse was taking place.

The monies allocated to First Nations are theirs under treaty. This is not a government grant to some organization or ethic group that must be accounted for, or a contribution of aid to a foreign country, which is taken from general tax revenues.

This is First Nations money from the get go and it is theirs to account for each year in a way their own people find acceptable.

Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2014 A11

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