The First Nations Financial Transparency Act and Business as Usual in Ottawa

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THE RON GIESBRECHT story is an everyone-saw-it-coming affair, and that’s among the reasons why the First Nations Financial Transparency Act has engendered both its champions and detractors. “This is the greatest piece of legislation passed by our parliament, I believe, in a long time,” Derek Fildebrandt (of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation) has been reported as saying. You can imagine him salivating these recent and delicious months, in anticipation of the handful of uncloseted Chiefs à la Giesbrecht, just as you can imagine the few rueful and disgraced Chiefs lamenting a lapsed age of innocence.

But to imagine that Bill C-27, An Act to Enhance the Financial Accountability and Transparency of First Nations, slices so neatly as Taxpayers and Indians is to miss the point. The origins of Bill C-27 go back some years to one of those odd political bedfellow arrangements that happen from time to time: in this case between the aforementioned CTF and groups like the Peguis Accountability Coalition and the Treaty 3 Grassroots Citizens Coalition. This will serve to remind us that the First Nations/Taxpayer divide, that so often beaten AM talk radio drum, is a misapprehension.

While we’re on the topic of false dichotomies, is it not equally useless to draw the financial ledger along the lines of Canada versus the First Nations Chiefs and Councils? The current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, openly vocalized his shock at the exorbitant remuneration of the Kwikwetlem First Nation Chief, Ron Giesbrecht. Yet it was under his watch that this happened, and, as we all know, the chief-and-council works of which Giesbrecht is a cog derives from federal authority and imposition. Nearly one million dollars terminated in Mr. Giesbrecht’s account, but there’s no controversy over the question of where the buck itself stops.

The point to be assimilated here is that the solution held forth as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act assumes a bit too much on the problem side of the equation. It would be difficult to find a less accountable, less grassroots-driven, less flexible and less efficient bureaucracy than Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. And yet the cause of transparency and good government is somehow for them to champion, and this effort is meanwhile reported and deliberated by a good many straight-faced commentators who should know better. If that’s too obtuse a way of putting it, let’s try this: AANDC  is not the antidote to the problem; indeed, it’s the author and enforcer and historical agent of the problem.

Hayden King has listed the likely achievements of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, and I find little in his assessment to dispute. But this “little” concerns large matters of substance, such as the stranglehold of well-connected families in some of the communities. It’s callous of us in the “aboriginal community” to critique the real enough shortcomings, present and prospective, of AANDC and their Bill C-27 while airbrushing from the scene the human misery of community members which has give rise to grassroots campaigns for better governance. They deserve as much, but Ottawa in my opinion is ill-equipped and even unequipped to deliver. That will remain the case until the raw, nerve-end impatience so casually and indiscriminately levelled by Canadians against first nations is applied to Ottawa.

In summation, I won’t be saddened to witness the downfall of a few overfed overlords, but neither do I see the federal government as putting real muscle behind a commitment to substantial reform and new directions. Business in Ottawa looks a lot like business as usual, and that’s bad news for everyone.

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