Smagnis Says; This can be a reality but much must be donefirstas you can see from the other article below where Grassroots members call on AFN and Ottawa to enact new financial law and measures of accountability, Leadership in our communities must be bold and set the course with a governance structure that reflects community input and empowerment. The Governance structure should reflect a solid organizational structure with good governance separating politics from business and include things like conflict of interest for elected officals, HR policy, a clear and concise vision and a strategic plan, etc. The bold part is to include a Declaration of Title and Rights over traditional territory and a Consultation Protocol developed by community members and elected officals held accountable to them. We are at the dawn of a new era and leadership must be bold, be prepared, be empowerd by the community and take the bull by the horns.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett before the start of the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Quebec
A small committee of federal politicians and indigenous leaders is quietly figuring out how to pull off one of the most radical changes to the way Canada deals with its First Nations since the passage of The Indian Act.
The committee’s objective is to transform the means by which Ottawa transfers billions of dollars a year to the country’s 634 First nations.
If it works, it could be the single most significant thing the Trudeau government will have done for its oft-promised “reset” of the relationship between the Crown and First Nations.
“This is going to be a monumental change in terms of what happens in Canada,” Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of the First Nations, in an interview. “People are sometimes wary of change but I think this will be in the best interests of Canada as a whole.”
The committee’s work also promises to transform a federal bureaucracy long set in the way it delivers services to all Canadians, ways that have been recently criticized by the Auditor General Michael Ferguson for being too concerned with itself and indifferent to improving the lives of its citizens.
But First Nations themselves may also have much work to do to prepare for that new future.
A National Post analysis of the 2014-2015 financial statements filed by 559 First Nations that complied with the First Nations Financial Transparency Act found that 172 of them posted financial statements that violated generally accepted public sector accounting standards.
Some of those violations were relatively minor while others were serious enough that the band’s auditors were unable to provide an opinion about the accuracy of the financial statement.
The Trudeau government suspended the First Nations Financial Transparency Act for the 2015-16 financial year so it is unclear how some First Nations governments will be compelled to improve their financial reporting and controls.
The catalyst for changes in governance and accountability by both the Crown and First Nations could be this little-known committee, known as the “First Nations-Canada Joint Committee on the Fiscal Relationship,” created by a memorandum of understanding signed on July 13 by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the federal department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).
The committee consists of just four individuals. Bellegarde and David Jimmie, chief of the Squiala First Nation in British Columbia, represent the AFN. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has been a constant member for the federal government but, despite repeated requests last week, her department could not identify the other federal government member.
The AFN is hopeful that it will be a “senior person” from either the department of finance or the Treasury Board.
At its last meeting, on Nov. 24, Treasury Board President Scott Brison sat on the federal government’s side but it is not clear if Brison is to be a regular member of that committee.
The committee has also brought in experts for advice. Don Drummond, a former deputy minister at the department of finance, joined a recent meeting of the committee. Ferguson, the auditor general, also joined a meeting.
The committee next meets on Feb. 8.
Bennett’s department failed to answer questions last week about the committee’s work but the AFN says its objectives are threefold:
- To find a way to provide each First Nation with sufficient funding;
- To make that funding predictable so that a First Nation can make more effective allocation of its resources;
- And to build appropriate accountability mechanisms for both Canada and First Nations.
The current system, both sides agree, is deficient in all three of those ways.
For example, First Nations have had annual increases in core funding from INAC frozen at two per cent for 20 years even though population growth has been running higher than that. Justin Trudeau, a month after he was sworn as prime minister, vowed to lift that funding cap “immediately” in his first budget.
That funding cap, though, has not yet been lifted and, at last week’s annual assembly of the AFN in Gatineau, Que., several chiefs expressed frustration that that promise had not been fulfilled.
One of Bellegarde’s chief objectives at last week’s meeting seemed to be managing expectations of frustrated chiefs, trying to show progress while explaining the complexity of what seems like an otherwise straightforward promise.
The committee has given itself until Dec. 31, 2017 to complete its work.
That work is expected to create a template for individual First Nations to negotiate a new fiscal framework with the federal government. So, instead of dealing with as many as five federal government departments — each of which may have two, three or more individual funding programs — the First Nation would get a single annual transfer which would represent the entire federal contribution to its operating and capital programs.
We want it to be a government-to-government transfer.
To do so, the federal government has to figure out a way for INAC, Health Canada, Public Safety Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada and other agencies to work as a one-stop shop for First Nations. Re-organizing Ottawa’s bureaucratic plumbing makes this a tall order.
“We’re looking at a single, whole-of-government approach,” Bellegarde said. “We want it to be a government-to-government transfer. We really need the institutions of government to be around that table, that can make the necessary internal changes to allow that one-agreement model.”
But just as the federal government will be forced to make significant changes, so too could many participating First Nations.
The National Post analysis of the 559 First Nations financial statements filed in fiscal 2015 found that individual band councils provided vastly different details in their financial statements when it comes to itemizing details of their sources of income and how they spent that money. All report a bottom line number for revenues and expenses but the details of how each got to that bottom line varies widely.
Some refused requests by their auditors for information on individual expenses or revenue sources.
Variability for expense reporting by First Nations makes it difficult to compare spending priorities among First Nations. Many report spending by segment, i.e. Health, Education, Economic Development, etc. while some report it by object, i.e. Postage, Electricity, Heat, Water, Salaries, etc. Even where there is reporting by segment, some First Nations have different descriptions of what constitutes “health” or “social services.”
That variation or lack of standardization will make it difficult for a “whole-of-government” approach to measure outcomes and accountability of federal transfers to First Nations.
The analysis also found that 72 of the country’s 643 First Nations filed little or incomplete financial reporting data with the federal government.
‘They need to help us’: First Nations members say laws fail to protect economic rights
Grassroots members call on AFN and Ottawa to enact new financial law, measures
Existing legislation fails to protect the economic rights of First Nations band members or allow them to hold leaders to account financially, critics say.
Band representatives across the country are calling for new legislation and measures, based on widespread consultations with grassroots First Nations members, to correct the problem.
“The system does not protect the rights of band membership,” said Karen McCarthy, an off-reserve member of Alberta’s Whitefish Lake First Nation 128, 220 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
‘Under the Indian Act there is no recourse for band membership to challenge their chief and council’ – Karen McCarthy, Whitefish Lake First Nation 128
“The Indian Act system just protects the chief and council,” added McCarthy, who has a management degree in First Nations governance.
In September, a CBC Edmonton investigation revealed an audit had identified $2.1 million in “unexplained payments” to a former chief and some staff at Alexander First Nation, which has a reserve northwest of Edmonton.
Since then, band members from eight communities across Canada have contacted CBC Edmonton with similar complaints about financial irregularities involving band leaders.
- Audit identifies $2.1M in ‘unexplained payments’ to Alexander First Nation former chief and staff
- Samson Cree leaders deny financial wrongdoing as critics rally for audit
- Improve rules governing First Nation spending, critics demand
McCarthy has recently held meetings to help foster greater understanding among band members about First Nations finances and rights.
“Under the Indian Act there is no recourse for band membership to challenge their chief and councils,” she said. “And the system where we file grievances and allegations to INAC [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] — it doesn’t really go anywhere.”
‘We need help’
It’s an issue Charmaine Stick hoped to see addressed at this week’s Assembly of First Nations (AFN) special chiefs meeting in Gatineau, Quebec.
“They need to start listening to grassroots people,” said Stick, a resident of Onion Lake Cree Nation. Its two reserves straddle the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, with an office in Edmonton to assist off-reserve members.
Stick earlier this month launched a court application, paid for by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, to force her band administration to disclose detailed financial information.
She said the taxpayers organization took up her case after a three-year struggle in which INAC and the AFN refused to help.
“They (INAC and AFN) need to help us,” she said. “We need help instead of taking our own leadership to court.”
AFN did not respond to a request for comment.
Philip Chief, associate director of operations for Onion Lake, a leading oil-producing First Nation, said while the band does not provide copies of audits, they can be viewed at the administration office or at membership meetings.
Onion Lake drafts financial policy
The band has also drafted financial administration policy laying out rules around investment, conflict of interest and transparency, Chief said, adding investments into infrastructure total nearly $250 million.
“I’m not going to say every community is as lucky and fortunate as Onion Lake is,” said Chief. “There’s some communities out there that do require that overarching supervision or monitoring because of their lack of ability or because of their isolation.”
‘There’s some communities out there that do require that overarching supervision’ – Philip Chief, Onion Lake Cree Nation
The First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA), passed under the former federal Conservative government, aimed to respond to that need, in part by penalizing bands that did not submit annual audits.
But last year the federal court sided in a ruling with Onion Lake and other bands that refused to publicly report financial information.
They argued the requirement violated privacy and treaty rights, while undermining the competitiveness of business ventures.
- Federal transparency law court case wraps in Saskatoon
- Carolyn Bennett reinstates funds frozen under First Nations Financial Transparency Act
Two months after the ruling, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett ended penalties under the law, noting most members continue to comply anyway. Her office has said upcoming talks with First Nations will look at new approaches.
In October, dozens from the Samson Cree First Nation marched in protest, backed by the collection of more than 300 signatures, to demand a forensic audit in that community south of Edmonton.
A few days later, Conservative MP and Indigenous Affairs critic Cathy McLeod raised their request with Bennett during question period in Ottawa.
“Any member of any First Nation can ask our government to provide the audited financial statements at any time,” replied Bennett.
‘Any member of any First Nation can ask our government to provide the audited financial statements at any time’ – Carolyn Bennett, Indigenous Affairs Minister
Although anyone from a band can technically request a forensic audit, the chances of getting one are slim, according to McCarthy.
She said they require approval by the chief and band council, which pays for them.
“A First Nation with a council that isn’t being transparent or accountable to their nation aren’t going to do an audit on themselves,” said McCarthy.
‘Nowhere to turn’
Angela Flett, from Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation in northwest Ontario near Kenora, waited nearly a year to find out the federal government had rejected the forensic audit she and others had requested.
In a letter dated Dec. 10, 2015, INAC wrote that the investigation services branch determined her concerns were “not within” the department’s mandate and “therefore we are unable to assist you in these matters.”
The letter encouraged her to remain in contact with her chief and council.
But Flett said concerns had already been raised with the band leadership around spending, expenses and the investment of a land claim settlement. And annual audits don’t reveal the entire financial picture, she added.
“We have nowhere to turn,” said Flett. “The people that are supposed to be responsible for First Nations are not addressing these issues.”
In the March budget, the Liberal government committed to invest $8.4 billion over five years into First Nations communities. But Flett questions whether it would filter down and “put a dent into the social problems” such as high unemployment, housing and suicide.
Flett called for an independent body to rule on disputes between band administration and members in a timely way. Creation of a band hotline staffed by experts to address ongoing concerns would also be beneficial, she suggested.
In a statement to CBC News, Onigaming Chief Kathy Kishiqueb said proper financial policies, controls and personnel are in place and independent audits are submitted annually to the federal government.
“I can say without hesitation as Chief that we are operating properly and honestly,” said Kishiqueb, encouraging those with concerns to approach chief and council. “The allegations are simply wrong and slanderous in nature.”