It's the level of government very few British Columbians ever think about. More than 200 aboriginal bands, each with elected chiefs and councils, managing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and provincial tax money.
This week, for the very first time, taxpayers and the band members who cast ballots to elect those chiefs and councils are getting to see the financial statements and political salaries for those bands.
The information is being posted to a new federal government website following last year's adoption of a law mandating that these financial reports be put online. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, along with advocates and whistleblowers in several First Nations communities, had been calling for this since 2009.
As of this writing, only 15 of the 205 B.C. bands had their information posted. More are expected in the days and weeks to come, but even this sample reveals some very interesting information.
The Tk'emlúps band paid its chief, Shane Gottfriedson, $92,352 last year. Because that salary is tax-free, it's the equivalent of making $128,000 off-reserve -- far more than the mayor of nearby Kamloops, who will make $85,754 next year. Gottfriedson leads a community of 1,058, half of whom live off-reserve; the mayor of Kamloops governs a city of 86,000 people.
Tk'emlúps also paid six councillors salaries ranging from $79,840 to $84,580 tax-free; far more than the $24,811 Kamloops city councillors make.
Jason Louie, chief of the 235-member Lower Kootenay band, made $60,000 tax-free last year, the equivalent of $76,500 off-reserve. Creston Mayor Ron Toyota made $23,632 for governing more than 5,000 people.
Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Doug White made $108,022 last year, the equivalent of roughly $155,000 if the salary were taxed. He governed a community of 1,716 -- 1,014 of whom live off reserve. Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan made $84,370 for leading almost 85,000 people.
One Snuneymuxw councillor made more than $300,000 last year, with the disclosure noting it was for "construction-related services," and excluding the cost of delivering those services. By making this disclosure public, Snuneymuxw members can ensure this work is being distributed fairly, and that the councillor is stepping out of any contract award votes.
How do these chiefs get away with making so much money? In part, because very few people actually knew they made that much. For a lot of bands, politician salaries were a closely-guarded secret.
The Squamish Nation, for example, told one of its members that they were "prohibited by law to disclose the specific salaries of individuals." This was utter rubbish; even if their dubious interpretation of the law was true and didn't fly in the face of what the federal government said, the chief and council could have waived their right to privacy and released the information.
Thanks to this new federal law that information will (soon) be online for all to see.
The difference between the salaries of elected officials on reserve versus those in municipal halls reinforces the value of making this information public. In Nova Scotia, a new chief has already been elected leader of the Annapolis Valley First Nation on a platform promising members they could set her salary.
She defeated a 12-year incumbent, and led a public meeting where band members voted to cut the chief's salary by 60 per cent.
Knowing what we're paying elected officials is a cornerstone of democracy. Hopefully, aboriginal bands see this new law as an opportunity to grow their accountability to their members and to taxpayers.
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