When parliamentarians talked about aboriginal financial transparency

Because politicians love to love transparency


YOUR IDEA: Report on the Oct. 17 meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, where MPs debated Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act

It’s no secret that everyone in politics loves to love transparency. Nor is it a secret that governments love to demand transparency from organizations under its jurisdiction. Enter the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

The committee met yesterday to discuss Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. The legislation, if you believe its proponents, is designed to make bands more accountable for the money they spend. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan defended the bill at the same committee earlier in the week, but not everyone agrees about C-27’s merits. (Earlier this week, The Hill Times wrote a comprehensive tale of the tape that outlines who’s for and against the bill, and why. It’s worth a read, because what’s at stake here is quite complex.)

Yesterday, the committee heard from two witnesses, both representing aboriginal interests:

  • Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief in British Columbia
  • Darcy M. Bear, the chief of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation

Wilson-Raybould made several points in her opening remarks, and during the question-and-answer period that followed, that were quite critical of C-27’s intent. Her overarching critique was that the bill seeks to impose a framework for governance on First Nations communities, instead of allowing those communities to develop according to their own wishes, and with the support of their peers. She offered no specific amendments to the text of the bill.

Opposition MPs asked leading questions that tended to be even more critical than the testimony. NDP MP Dennis Bevington, from Western Arctic, asked this “question,” after Wilson-Raybould called the legislation well-intentioned.

I don’t really find [C-27] to be useful at all. I think quite clearly that there are other motivations that work here, and I really don’t appreciate them speaking as a representative of many First Nation constituents. I find that this piece of legislation is as you say, but I won’t give you “well-intentioned” on it.

Wilson-Raybould started her response diplomatically, saying:

There are varying perspectives in terms of the intention of this legislation.

Government MPs, for their part, asked questions that tended to probe AFN’s position on First Nations governance more than Wilson-Raybould’s concerns about the legislation at hand. Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar MP Kelly Block, as an example, suggested that she’s heard from some members of First Nations who aren’t able to obtain copies of their nation’s financial documents. They’re forced to ask the minister, she says, who then has the power to demand the financials. Here’s one of Block’s questions to Wilson-Raybould:

My question to you is, why should these members have to ask the minister to release this information to them?

Wilson-Raybould responded:

I know that the perception out there that first nations do not disclose financial information to their citizens is greatly over-exaggerated, in my assessment.

That’s a relevant conversation to have, given the subject at hand, but Block sure knows how to load a question.

The next witness was a different story. Chief Bear spoke the Conservatives’ language. He lauded the importance of transparency above all else, and presented specific amendments that would, in his view, fix the bill. Primarily, he didn’t want the bill to “scare business away” by holding band-owned businesses to different accounting principles than the private sector. Bear also said the bill should refine its definition of remuneration by, for example, removing expenses, which are included in current language, from the equation.

Opposition MPs were cordial to Bear, but their Conservative counterparts heaped praise on the man.

Block was particularly friendly to Bear. She introduced a private members’ bill during the last session of Parliament, C-575, that shared many, though not all, of the features of C-27. Block introduced her bill at Bear’s Whitecap First Nation, and he endorsed it. She also applauded his “compelling, inspiring” personal story (Bear was elected Chief at a time, in 1991, when his band’s financials were in shambles, and he led the charge to fix the books and push for transparency).

Block went so far as to thank Bear for his criticism of the bill, a courtesy she didn’t extend to the previous witness. “I also want to thank you for raising the concerns that you have regarding the current drafting of Bill C-27, and for sharing your proposed amendments with us,” she lavished.

Wild Rose MP Blake Richards even quipped that Bear’s work to rejuvenate his band’s financial standing, and find more sources of revenue, means he’s “creating jobs, growth and prosperity,” which you might recall resembles the short name of the 2012 budget bill. It was a pretty friendly conversation.

Bear’s criticism of C-27 was subtler than Wilson-Raybould’s, and Conservative MPs were kinder to him, but both witnesses did agree about some things. And that’s just what the opposition hoped to emphasize in their rounds of questions to Bear.

They poked around, looking for places that Bear found common ground with AFN’s perspective. And they didn’t come up empty. Wilson-Raybould and Bear both agreed that:

  • The legislation would make First Nations’ financial statements available to the broader public. They should only be available to band members, because they’re the only people it concerns.
  • The legislation would threaten private enterprise in First Nations communities, because it would force those organizations to disclose information publicly—including details of remuneration—that any other private company would not have to disclose.

(The minister, for his part, says Bill C-27 “would not require each individual business owned by the band to publish its detailed financial statements.” The required financial statements only apply to First Nations as a whole and, the minister says, are “highly aggregated and should not reveal any proprietary information that would undermine their competitiveness.”)

And then that was that. Having sparred with each other vicariously through the witnesses at the table, the committee adjourned. Democracy, in the form of a parliamentary committee, had been served.

What happens next is almost, though not entirely, certain. Duncan told the committee he’s open to amendments of some sort. “Now we are reviewing the language of the bill and are receptive to clarification consistent with matching the spirit and intent of the bill,” he said. Bear’s proposals were fairly precise. The committee, because the Conservatives have the votes, will approve the bill—with Bear’s amendments, perhaps—and send it back to the House of Commons for approval.

NOTE: As soon as the committee transcript is available online, I’ll link to it here.

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