Recent newspaper stories in the Maple Creek News and Regina Leader-Post about First Nations and financial accountability made me smile for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I am pleased Nekaneet First Nation is complying with federal regulations that require all bands to complete an annual audited financial statement. Such action is not new to any municipal government – the exception being some Aboriginal band councils.
The federal transparency law was brought into effect thanks to a private member’s bill by MP Kelly Block. Bands that do not comply will not receive federal funding for non-essential programs and services. A person would think that any band council that is being fiscally responsible and operating honestly would not have a problem with such a bill. However, there are 52 bands across Canada that have not produced an audited financial statement for public viewing on the Internet. Nine of the bands that have not conformed are from Saskatchewan. Some claim they are working on an audit and could not meet the federal deadline of Nov. 26. Others do not have Internet access to upload their information and some are simply defying the federal government.
Ochapowace First Nation is one of at least two bands that have refused to submit an audited financial statement. When it came to a reason for not complying, Chief Margaret Bear played her Indian card and reportedly said the new law ignores native treaty rights and is contrary to Ochapowace’s sovereignty. She claims information that does not involve federal funding will not be released because it may contain confidential information. That could be correct, but audits typically do not release confidential information unless expenses such as purchases, rentals, services performed, salaries, honorariums and travel expenses are considered confidential. In fact, when it comes to the spending of public funds at any government level, residents are entitled to know how the dollars are being spent.
Ochapowace has submitted an audited statement for operations that involve federal funding, but will not disclose anything more because all other financial dealings are the business of the band, according to Chief Bear.
I find such a statement interesting because it implies Aboriginal governments do not have to answer to anyone, especially the federal government with whom their treaties were signed and are apparently still held in high regard by band councils and members. That attitude is so typical of organizations that want the best of both worlds: federal funding and a lack of public accountability. Where such an attitude is prevalent, it does not mean an organization or its leaders are anything less than honest, but it opens the door to potential abuse of the system. It seems to me that any credible government would want to appear totally open and transparent.
People tend to forget that financial transparency that is backed up by an independent third-party audit is a two-way safeguard. It is the only way residents can truly know how funds are being spent and it also tends to keep people honest and accountable when they are in positions of power since their dealings are recorded and disclosed. Missing financial information and anything less than total transparency always starts alarm bells ringing in my head.
It is unfortunate that audited financial statements do not provide more details, but detailed breakdowns take more time and ultimately increase the cost of any audit. If additional information about revenue, expenses or operations is desired, I encourage residents to first attend local governance meetings, learn how the system works and then make a request if they still feel the need for more information.
An audited annual financial statement is a real asset to any government that is truly serving its people. It’s likely not appreciated by leaders such as the British Columbia chief who is being paid $914,000 per year (See Marcia Love’s Nov. 27 story).
In my mind there is only one thing worse than being oppressed by a foreign power and that is being exploited by kinsmen, especially leaders who are entrusted to serve the needs of all their people.