The federal legislation that requires First Nations to publicly post on the Internet band finances and chief and councillor salaries is a reasonable, progressive move to put into the public domain information every other government in Canada must publish. Some bands opposed to complying, in principle, may eventually have to explain themselves to a judge -- they can be forced to publish the documents by a superior court.
For too long, members of some First Nations have been denied the democratic right enjoyed by all other Canadians who can routinely access and scrutinize the budgets, public accounts and financial statements that are posted regularly online.
Open government is central to accountability and transparency for public servants and office-holders elected to serve the public.
The intransigence of some native leaders is unfortunate and insupportable. And that puts Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on the wrong side of this issue. Mr. Trudeau says he would scrap the new First Nations Transparency Act, should he be elected prime minister next year.
Mr. Trudeau said he would design legislation on financial disclosure in co-operation with First Nations leaders, to give information on salaries to band members rather than the broader public.
The decision is eerily reminiscent of a misguided deal a former Liberal made with First Nations chiefs in the run-up to the unceremonious dumping of Jean Chrétien, whose government had drafted a governance act intending to modernize band governance. That act died at the hands of a new, unelected prime minister Paul Martin who took the reins from his former leader in 2003. He had told the chiefs he would scrap the governance act they opposed if they came to him with an act that was as good as or better than what he killed.
That never happened, and today, Parliament, band governments and reserve residents are still at odds over the state of governance on reserve.
Mr. Trudeau's position on the transparency act, as apparently ill-considered as it seems, is likely to end in similar style.
The would-be prime minister seems to have given little consideration to the effect of his policy-on-the-fly (he "announced" his intentions in an interview with a Vancouver reporter, and appeared to be developing it as the journalist parsed his responses). And that shortchanges reserve residents and activists who have bravely challenged their chiefs and councillors over the years, insisting financial documents be made public routinely.
Although about half of Canada's bands have complied with the act to date, the lack of disclosure is not necessarily defiance of the law. In Manitoba, a handful of the 63 bands met the deadline. Some chiefs do not believe they owe Canadians a financial disclosure -- they intend to get the information online, but only for their members.
Yet many more have routinely been making the disclosures for years. They and others will make the financial statements and salaries public, but are dealing with technical or extraordinary delays. (Some small, remote bands don't have websites.)
The act gives anyone, including the federal minister of aboriginal affairs, the ability to seek a court order to force non-compliant bands to post the documents. The federal government can withhold money it transfers to bands, under agreement, for services and programs, or cancel agreements entirely.
Court orders are useful to underscore legal principle, but withholding of funds is a regressive option that would more likely hurt ordinary reserve residents. The better route is to use the example of healthy, high-functioning bands that recognize the inherent democratic rights of residents and demonstrate it by governing accountably. Holdouts, eventually, will be shown to be isolated throwbacks unworthy of holding office.