Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt’s run as a blunt-spoken street fighter who sees no grey areas was going to make some enemies. Valcourt championed a salary disclosure law that Aboriginal leaders sometimes hated and largely accepted, but was controversial all the same. The law’s haters at the Onion Lake Cree Nation launched a court challenge on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional. Most band chiefs and councils, about 90 per cent, complied with the law—some even happily so. Now, one band is spitting in the face of Valcourt’s intransigence.
The Ermineskin Cree complied with the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, but to say it was under protest is putting things lightly. The band’s salary disclosure includes a lengthy preamble rife with criticism of the law, starting with its propensity to invite unfair criticism from perceived Native detractors—including a prominent tax watchdog that was “elated with” the new law’s passage. “The potential for any malcontent or troublemaker to read and to use in a malicious manner to complain about First Nations, i.e., the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is very real,” the preamble reads. “The Colonial Government has not provided any safeguards against this possible abuse.”
The Ermineskin would refuse to comply, they say, but that plan gets costly. The government is taking five bands to court to force them to comply with the law, and withholding non-essential funding from any band that refuses. The Ermeneskin claim those resulting penalties would simply do too much damage to their people’s livelihoods:
We believe that not to comply will place our ability to serve our citizens and to act in the best interests of our Nation in jeopardy. Further, it will place our membership in harms [sic] way and will hurt our childrens’ [sic] lives and education; it will also cause undue hardship to the most vulnerable citizens and families within our nation. In addition, it will cause a discontinuation of vital services (e.g., water, sewer, education, etc. . .) to our nation [sic] citizens.
The band writes that only “under coercion” will it comply with an “unjust and racist law” and, in closing, claims that the Harper government has “no moral high ground on the issue.”
As for the actual salary disclosure, the band makes a subtle statement about which pot of money pays the chief and council. The disclosure distinguishes between wages drawn from federal funding and those drawn from own-source revenue. The whole point of the disclosure law, after all, is to hold Aboriginal leaders to account for the public funds that end up in their bank accounts. But the Ermineskin deliberately mark zeroes underneath those federal columns. In other words, they claim only own-source revenue pays their leaders—not the federal money that’s under the microscope.
This protest surely won’t budge Valcourt, who’s regularly obstinate in the face of Aboriginal complaints. This may be what victory looks like for a minister bent on winning.
(The Ermineskin have so far made no one available to comment on the band’s filings after repeated calls, but we’ll report back as soon as possible.)
Update,Jan. 13: The government originally took six bands to court, but one of those bands subsequently complied with the law.