Column: New law on First Nations a needed confrontation

As a troubled Assembly of First Nations convenes to choose a new national chief, two years after the Idle No More movement, the Harper government is back to its default position with aboriginals.

They are at war again, withholding funding and heading to court.

Yet again, the federal government and First Nations are talking past each other, not to each other.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt announced this week he is going to court to force six defiant First Nations to publicly post their financial information – including the salaries and expense statements of chiefs and band council members – as required under law.

His law, that is, a law that looks like it was crafted to spark a needed confrontation.

The six bands have flatly told Ottawa they will not comply and the Onion Lake Cree Nation of Saskatchewan has already gone to Federal Court in its own bid to overturn the law.

Valcourt is also withholding non-essential funding to the 47 bands which have defied him. All told, as of Tuesday, 535 of 582 First Nations had complied, many of them after the minister extended a deadline by 120 days.

We have arrived at one of those events you could have circled on your parliamentary calendar the moment the Conservatives introduced the legislation three years ago.

The rationale was a demand for transparency and accountability, or so we were told, from individual band members who couldn’t find information about the salaries of their leaders, and the Canadian Taxpayer Federation, which claimed it, too, was hearing complaints.

In reality, there was no compelling need for such legislation, especially from a government that had once championed its own transparency and accountability and now demands it of all but itself.

It has already been a success for the government.

It has allowed an image of First Nations as scofflaws trying to hide profligate spending to take hold.

It has allowed itself to go after both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, both of whom oppose the legislation, as enemies of accountability.

Trudeau, particularly, was put on the defensive during the summer when he vowed to repeal the law, saying the Conservatives had politics, not transparency, in mind and were pointing fingers at specific communities in their ongoing bid to create enemies.

Most importantly, it allows them to continue to fight with First Nations, a popular foil for a party base that likes to believe their tax money is being wasted on aboriginals, who blamed First Nations leadership for scuttling a perfectly good education funding initiative and who will tell you an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women would be a useless gabfest that would merely line the pockets of high-priced lawyers.

Moreover, financial information was already required to be made available for any band receiving financial support from Ottawa.

This bill took that requirement further by requiring all salaries and spending to be publicly posted. Even then, it was largely a non-event with a couple of exceptions.

The tiny Kwikwetlem First Nation in British Columbia was taken aback at the revelation that its chief had pocketed $800,000 in an “economic development” bonus and the Shuswap First Nation in that province dumped a long-time chief after learning he was earning more than $200,000 per year.

Aboriginal leaders say the new rules breach their indigenous rights. They point to the onerous costs of such audits. Others say the entire point of the legislation was to create a sideshow and take the spotlight away from other, more urgent issues, such as a funding shortfall in education, substandard housing and lack of potable water on many reserves.

Onion Lake, which stands on the cusp of sustaining itself without any government funding – relying instead on oil revenue – says it would continue to disclose financial information relating to money received by the federal government but balked at posting any information that related to its own revenues.

Of course, Chief Wallace Fox is now facing internal dissent from community members upset that band funds are being used in a court battle with Ottawa.

But internal dissent suits a divide-and-conquer government just fine. For running this sideshow, Valcourt deserves a bow at centre stage.

At some point, however, this government is going to have to realize it cannot continue to manufacture battles with First Nations and actually work toward some solutions.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday
and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2014
Torstar Syndication Services

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