For 13 days in June 2014, I went on a hunger strike
Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, speaks with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett in Gatineau, Que., on Dec. 6. One year ago, the federal government halted compliance measures that required bands to reveal detailed financial information
My struggle for financial transparency at Onion Lake Cree Nation, which lies on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, started about two years ago.
At the time, I had been standing up in band meetings and demanding to know what was happening with our money. Because of that, an elder came to me and gave me documents showing oil and gas revenues for Onion Lake, since he didn’t know what the documents meant and figured I would have better use for them. The revenue amount I saw was two times the amount Onion Lake people were told.
I read the documents after coming from the band office earlier that day and being told there was no money to assist me to go and get groceries. Yet the documents I had seen suggested another story.
That was too much for me to handle. I figured it had gone on too long. Somebody had to put a stop to this craziness.
For 13 days in June, 2014, I went on a hunger strike. I wasn’t sure what would be the outcome. I just knew I had to sit there and do what I had to do. I had to bring awareness to my people, to have them start standing up and start speaking out against this oppression that’s being brought on to us by our own level of government.
I had people dropping off more leaked financial documents at the site where I was sitting for my hunger strike. The more I read and the more I received, the angrier I got and the more disgusted I was at the amount of money that was being played with.
Finally, on the fourth day of my hunger strike, at the request of another council member, Onion Lake Chief Wallace Fox approached me and asked what I hoped to accomplish, and why I was doing this. I replied that people wanted answers and to just tell the truth about where our money went. Out of frustration, he told me I was starving myself for nothing.
Band leaders had previously presented the First Nations Financial Transparency Act — legislation introduced by the Harper government requiring band administrations to disclose audited financial statements, including salaries of chiefs and councils — at a couple of band meetings, but they didn’t explain the whole act. They said the federal government was trying to impose this legislation on us, and that we wouldn’t be receiving any more government assistance. Basically, they scared the people into agreeing with them to fight the act.
Chief Fox went up against the federal government in court and said the First Nations Financial Transparency Act was a form of racism.
‘From the membership’s point of view, we’d like to know where they’re spending our oil and gas revenues.’— Charmaine Stick
In actuality, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act — which the Trudeau government stopped enforcing last December — was good for people. It was somewhere for the grassroots people to go to get answers. The way I see it, we lost out on legal fees battling the federal government for nothing, and our people are still asking the same questions they had previous to the Act.
We need equality. Without the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, there’s no equality for the membership in our community.
Now, I’ve taken legal action with the help of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. We would like to have our band government open up their books and let us know their salaries, their expenses and what they’re doing with the money that’s given to them by the government. From the membership’s point of view, we’d like to know where they’re spending our oil and gas revenues.
Off track for too long
We’ve been off track for too long. It’s gotten to the point that it’s hurting our people and our youth. Transparency and accountability have always been a part of our roots and our natural laws. We need to start making our leadership accountable for their actions and for the financial decisions they say are for the betterment of our people. It hasn’t been that way for so long.
We need to be equal. If we want to be equal – if we want to be on a nation-to-nation level – then this is a step toward reconciliation on our part.