Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attacking chiefs mindless

Defining fair salaries could help problem

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Oh, the outrage.

This past week, First Nations leaders were compelled to disclose their salary and benefits, the result of a new federal transparency and accountability law.

Only about a dozen First Nations leaders have complied to date. Even so, the initial dump of information from Ottawa has caused plenty of howling.

It started on July 28, when the very first reports were posted. That day, the target of everyone's ire was Manitoba's own Chief John Thunder, leader of Buffalo Point First Nation.

Buffalo Point is a very thinly populated, economically successful reserve in the province's southeast. The Canadian Press reported Thunder was paid $116,918 for his job as chief.

As one of the first chiefs to respect the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, Thunder was immediately assailed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the lobby that has been howling for many years over First Nations and their chiefs' overpay and benefits.

It was the CTF that sparked headlines in 2010 by releasing salary and benefit numbers for a number of chiefs, discovering that about 30 earned more than a provincial premier. Colin Craig, director of the CTF's Manitoba branch, has been the national spokesman on this issue and he clearly relished taking a shot at Thunder. "It's a very high number considering the low population of band members," Craig told CP.

Craig's outrage over Thunder, however, was mild compared with the reaction a few days later when it was learned Chief Ron Giesbrecht of B.C.'s Kwikwetiem First Nation pulled down nearly $1 million in salary, a number Craig called "obscenely high." He also said the CTF was "jubilant" Ottawa responded to their efforts and passed legislation to force chiefs to disclose.

No one would seriously try to justify Chief Giesbrecht's profiteering. It appears he took a huge windfall when his band received an influx of cash from a land settlement. And given the circumstance, the federal law is doing exactly what it said it would do, which is to force disclosure so we can see unjustifiable salaries.

However, it's important to remember the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is not primarily interested in promoting transparency and accountability on reserve. The CTF's real concerns are more specific.

First, that money earned by aboriginals living on reserve is tax-free, a crime against every non-aboriginal taxpayer in the country. And federal transfers to First Nations are an unnecessary and wasteful government expense.

What is interesting is anyone would express outrage without having some sort of context in which to judge a chief's salary and benefits.

We know, thanks to federal disclosure, that remuneration for First Nations elected officials varies wildly, from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. We do not know, however, what is a fair salary.

Should there be a national scale for chiefs and band councillors? Should a chief whooversees an economically successful First Nation be allowed to make more than a chief in charge of an economically dysfunctional community? Should chiefs of larger communities automatically make more than those overseeing smaller ones?

Nobody knows the answer to these questions, and yet that has not stopped the CTF, and others, from spewing an effluent of moral indignation.

Ironically, this is the same schtick the CTF uses to assail wages, benefits and especially pensions paid to non-aboriginal elected officials. In the CTF world, it seems all salaries for any elected officials are too high when taxpayer dollars are used to pay for it.

That is, of course, the very definition of a zero-sum equation. Government of any kind, and that includes First Nations councils, is only as good as the people who lead them. Attacking leaders solely on what they are paid, without defining reasonable pay, is mindless and unjust.

To be clear, First Nations should have been disclosing salaries and benefits for elected officials and band employees a long time ago. It is a tragedy the chiefs waited for Ottawa to pass a law forcing them to do something they should have done themselves.

Not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because those who believe in the inherent right of aboriginal people to self-government would like to see aboriginal leaders show interest in the core issues of governance.

It is more important than ever we hear First Nations leaders weigh in on their salaries and benefits. Without the chiefs, First Nations people in this country will continue to be defined by groups such as the CTF. And we know by now the definition the CTF will continue offering Canadians:

We don't know how much they should be paid, but whatever they're getting now is obviously too much.

Let the howling begin.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 B3

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