POLITICS

Federal Tories put First Nations accountability bill on fast track

11/21/2012 12:47 EST | Updated 01/21/2013 05:12 EST
OTTAWA - The federal Conservative government is pushing through more First Nations legislation that does not have the support of chiefs, despite growing tension between Ottawa and native leaders.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Wednesday his party is forcing a vote to shut down debate on a financial transparency bill that will require First Nations chiefs and councillors to publish their salaries and expenses.

The move means the bill will pass the House of Commons by the end of this week —over the objections of chiefs, as well as the federal NDP and Liberals. Various forms of the bill have been around for three years, stalled by electoral cycles and opposition from the Assembly of First Nations.

"It's unfortunate that we have to take this measure," Duncan told a news conference. "Continued obstruction by the NDP and Liberals has made it clear that this is the only way this important bill will be passed."

Duncan said that while the chiefs' organization may not support the legislation, it is in keeping with resolutions passed by the AFN and is widely favoured by grassroots First Nations.

But it's only one of several pieces of legislation that the Conservatives have pushed aggressively through the Commons over the objections of the AFN, damaging relations between Conservative and First Nations leaders.

"There has been a loss of momentum and sense of frustration (that) is being felt by the First Nation leadership," AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month.

"This is exacerbated by the federal government's broader legislative agenda."

Duncan responded to the letter on Wednesday, saying Atleo has unrealistic expectations for quick progress on plans made by Ottawa and First Nations last January to work together on a number of fronts.

"We've done an amazing amount," Duncan said.

The AFN has already pulled its support for a joint process on reforming First Nations education and is now warning about lack of consultation and progress on comprehensive claims, treaty implementation, governance, economic development and fiscal relations.

But in an interview, Duncan said he will persevere whether the AFN backs him or not, saying there are plenty of chiefs who are interested in co-operation.

"We just have to move forward."

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder said the talks won't get back on track until the federal government renounces the old ways of telling First Nations how things should be done.

"It's up to the federal government to determine leadership on this because they're the ones that actually hold the hammer," Crowder said in an interview.

"They're the ones that keep appealing court decisions and so on and so on. So they're the ones that keep perpetuating this adversarial approach."

She says that when it comes to the transparency act, there is no disagreement among chiefs, the opposition and the Conservatives that chiefs and councillors should be accountable and open about their salaries and expenses. Rather, the disagreement comes in deciding how it should be done.

Duncan said the resistance he has felt from First Nations chiefs goes straight to the essence of the legislation, not just its methods.

"Most of the objections are about the actual disclosure," he said.

The act before Parliament stems from research from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation which showed that more than 200 band politicians collect a higher salary than a provincial premier. More than 50 of them earn more than the prime minister.

"First Nation governments operating under the Indian Act are now the only governments in Canada that do not currently have a legislated requirement to make basic financial information public," Duncan said.

He said the new law would not give administrators any extra work, but would go a long way towards winning the trust of band members and also attracting much-needed investment for economic development.

But the AFN has argued that chiefs and councillors are already accountable in numerous ways and would be willing to go even further if they control the process. The government's approach borders on racism, the association has argued.

"Chiefs were clear in their assertion that the proposed measures are both heavy-handed and unnecessary and they suggest that First Nation governments are corrupt, our leaders are not transparent and consequently need to be regulated by Ottawa," B.C. regional chief Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a recent appearance before a parliamentary committee.

"What we really need to do is increase the options for our nations to develop their own governance including their accountability frameworks, so they can build their own future within Canada rather than be legislated from above."