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Aboriginals Deserve Good Financial Governance

06/29/2015 12:39 EDT | Updated 06/29/2016 05:59 EDT
Kwikwetlem First Nation
In the ongoing effort to bring transparency and accountability to Canada's hundreds of aboriginal governments, the name Wayne Louie should be remembered.

Wayne is a member of the Lower Kootenay Band, a First Nation of 235 people, half of whom live on a reserve near Creston, B.C.

In 2009, the band was paid $125,000 by the taxpayers of the Regional District of Central Kootenay for the use of a road that crosses the reserve. Flush with cash, the five-member band council secretly voted to pay themselves each a $5,000 bonus.

Two years went by before Wayne Louie discovered the payout. Unable to simply stand idly by, Wayne took the council to court to get the money back.

For years, he pushed his case forward. As it wound its way through the court system, Wayne relied on his nephew Rob for legal help, his brother Robert to chip in for filing fees, and Access Pro Bono, a non-profit law society, to help him argue his case.

While Wayne packed a sandwich and took a 15-hour bus ride from Creston to the Vancouver courthouse, the Lower Kootenay chief flew into town and ate out on his band's dime.

There was nothing to gain personally for Wayne; he fought for his friends and neighbours to stop his politicians from benefiting based solely on their elected positions. He did it because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Earlier this month, the B.C. Court of Appeal sided with Wayne Louie. In a landmark ruling, the court found the chief and four councilors had breached their duty to the band and ordered them to repay the money.

"This was a breach of fiduciary duty, even in the context of a relatively informal and custom-based governance structure," wrote Justice Mary Newbury in her decision. "In my view, such a structure should not deprive members of the Band of the protection of the fiduciary principle. They were entitled to hold the defendants to the high standard to which other fiduciaries are held in this country."

In other words, First Nation band councils should create the same rules and safeguards as other governments across Canada, a point echoed in a Mandell Pinder legal analysis of the decision: "Councils should develop financial administration and conflict of interest policies. Implementing bylaws or laws and policies to provide accountability and transparency in financial management is essential to good governance."

The lack of accountability on many reserves is why the Canadian Taxpayers Federation worked with grassroots band members to push for the new First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA). Among other things, the law requires chiefs and councillors to disclose their pay publicly. While it has already had a positive impact on many reserves, sadly, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has promised to scrap the law; a move designed to appease chiefs who oppose disclosure.

Already, the FNFTA is opening up band decisions to the grassroots. When Kwikwetlem First Nation Chief Ron Giesbrecht took home $914,249 tax-free in 2013-14, it was the FNFTA that revealed the massive payout. As Kwikwetlem's Marvin Joe told the National Post, "If it wasn't for this new transparency act, I don't think we ever would have known." Similarly, the new law exposed how four council members from the Shuswap First Nation had shared $4.1 million over four years to govern a band of 267 people. 

Instead of scrapping the FNFTA, the federal government should entrench the court's ruling and expand the law to require bands to pass conflict of interest and fiduciary responsibility rules. The government could also require bands to hand over even more financial information to the grassroots, especially around band-owned businesses and wages for chiefs sitting on regional bodies.

There are thousands of ethical people living and working on reserves across Canada, people like Wayne Louie. They deserve our support and admiration -- and laws that ensure a select few aren't taking more than their fair share.

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