Looking closer at native chiefs’ giant paycheques

National Post Editorial Board

October 19th, 2010

Last year, the average Canadian premier cleared just under $110,000, after taxes. According to Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) research, released Monday, there were at least 30 Aboriginal chiefs across Canada who made more, often for overseeing communities of 2,000 or fewer people. The chief of the Piapot reserve in southwestern Saskatchewan, for instance, out-earned Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, even though the reserve is home to just 543 men, women and children.

In all, nearly 60 of the 577 chiefs across the country were paid more than $90,000. And because their salaries and are paid on-reserve, they are tax-free. A $90,000 income on the reserve is equivalent to about $155,000 for a non-Aboriginal Canadian.

The scandalous pay of many chiefs began to come to light last winter when an anonymous tipster gave the CTF documents from Manitoba’s Peguis band. Those ledgers showed that Chief Glenn Hudson and the four band councillors had been paid between $206,000 and $311,000 each in 2008, the equivalent of $295,000 and $440,000 in taxable, off-reserve income. That same year, then-Manitoba premier Gary Doer had earned just $154,000. One councillor, Glennis Sutherland, collected $310,731, twice Mr. Doer’s pay for running an entire province.

Shortly after those revelations, the CTF received another secret package over the transom, showing that Chief Harry Sharphead of the Enoch Cree band on Edmonton’s western outskirts had been paid $180,000 tax-free in 2008, or about 30% more than Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, who is himself the highest paid provincial leader in Canada.

The average pay of Enoch’s 10 councillors was $175,725 and one-third of the band’s bureaucrats received six-figure salaries, all for administering a community of just over 2,000, whose typical resident earned an average annual income of just over $15,000.

Still, Chief Sharphead is a fiscal monk compared with his predecessor Ron Morin. Since being elected three years ago, Mr. Sharphead has twice cut his own pay. At one point during his tenure, Mr. Morin had received compensation of nearly $328,000 from band funds in a single year.

Concerned reserve residents are stymied, too. Since nearly all federal funds for on-reserve services flow through band councils, residents who complain about their leaders’ pay often find themselves ostracized. They are fired from on-reserve jobs or denied contracts with the band council. Their home repairs can go wanting, since all taxpayer monies for home building and renovations are controlled by the chief and councillors. They can even find themselves turned away from on-reserve social services.

Earlier this month, Saskatchewan Tory MP Kelly Block introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons that would compel First Nations bands to disclose their chiefs’ and councillors’ pay within 120 days of their fiscal year-ends. If they failed to do so, the federal Indian Affairs department would have the authority to release it for them. Indian Affairs already has all the salary and compensation information, but it simply refuses to release it in any fashion that would hold Aboriginal politicians accountable. It seems Indian Affairs is more accountable to the chiefs than to the Canadian taxpayers who foot the nearly $8-billion annual bill for running the country’s reserves.

Nor is the Assembly of First Nations interested in disclosure. New national chief Shawn Atleo, while claiming to be in favour of greater transparency in band affairs, is resisting Ms. Block’s bill on the rather thin grounds that his organization is tired of “one-way, government-knows-best approaches.” But because Mr. Atleo is elected by the chiefs — and not by First Nations people at large — it is just as likely he is defending the self-interest of those who elected him.
It’s true that not all on-reserve problems are caused by overpaid, unaccountable Aboriginal politicians wielding federal transfers as if they were their own personal pot-o-gold. Indian Affairs claims the average chief’s pay is just over $60,000 and the average councillor’s just over $30,000. And some reserves possess natural resources that can create prosperity without corruption. That may help account for some of the unusual paycheques.

Also, over the weekend, a small group of Canada’s most prosperous reserves complained that the Indian Affairs office in charge of transferring to them the title to their land is chronically understaffed. Because the First Nations Land Management program cannot get an additional $25-million from Ottawa for annual operations, the bands claim it is too slow in transferring title and they are missing out on economic opportunities that could make them and their residents self-sufficient.

So living-large chiefs are not, of course, the only source of Aboriginals’ problems. Yet, they are a cause that, thanks to political correctness, is often seen, but not mentioned by politicians, bureaucrats and experts. The pay structure on too many reserves have become symbolic of the failed governance model of Aboriginal communities. Unless and until that model is drastically reformed, no amount of additional tax money for First Nations programming will lift our Aboriginal Canadians out of the destitution in which too many of them find themselves.

National Post

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