Bands ask court to delay action by government for FNFTA non-compliance.
Five First Nations were in a federal court in Saskatoon Aug. 18 and 19 to ask the judge to stay an application by the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development that seeks to force them to publish their consolidated financial statements. The judge reserved his decision.
The First Nations argued that the Harper government had enacted racist policy by forcing First Nations to make their financial information available on line.
"It is, first of all, in our opinion, it is race-based, it's discriminatory. No other race is subject to this legislation or private businesses to post their financial statements on the web for the world to see. Only First Nations are," said Onion Lake Cree Nation Chief Wallace Fox. "Most importantly, under the Privacy Act legislation of Canada, all Canadians are protected, except the Indian people."
Onion Lake Cree Nation, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, was joined by First Nations from both provinces: the Athabasca Chipewyan and Sawridge First Nations in Alberta and Ochapowace and Thunderchild First Nations in Saskatchewan.
The five bands argued that the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which became law in March 2013, was not only discriminatory, but violated treaty rights and was enacted without proper consultation with First Nations. The government has threatened to withhold non-essential funding, as of Sept. 1 from the First Nations that have yet to comply with the FNFTA. According to the AANDC website, there are 234 First Nations, who did not submit their 2014-2015 documents by the July 29 deadline. In Alberta, Alexander, Athabasca Chipeweyan, Chiniki, Chipewyan Prairie, Duncan's, Heart Lake, Mikisew Cree, Montana and Sawridge First Nations have not complied.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, who was in Saskatoon to support the First Nations in court, says he wants to see the constitutional challenge of FNFTA dealt with first before forcing First Nations to comply. Erasmus says there was legal precedent set in 1988 that such financial information is private and confidential, and not to be seen outside of a First Nation's membership.
Erasmus was joined at court by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde as well as regional chiefs from British Columbia and Manitoba. Verbal support also came from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations as well as AFN Regional Chiefs throughout the country. A rally was held outside the court house in support of the five First Nations.
"Transparency and accountability is a good thing, and we totally support that, but it's our own-source revenues that's the big issue ... it's pretty heavy-handed," said Bellegarde.
Fox contends that if it is transparency the government is after then that is already being met by his First Nation. Not only does OLCN open its books to members three or four days in March, at the end of the fiscal year, and he and council explain it line by line, but Chief and council's salaries are posted on a board in the band office and announced on the radio. And anytime during the course of the year, band members can stop by the office and look at the books, with financial staff available to explain the line items both in English and in Cree. "It's always been an open door policy for our band members."
But he says making OLCN's entire financial situation--which includes money raised through economic ventures undertaken by the First Nation--available to everyone by posting numbers on line, hurts OLCN when doing business.
"When you look at the disclosure, the financial statements ... it leaves us at a competitive disadvantage. No other municipality is subject to this law," he said.
The government says that detailed information will not be revealed on the website, but instead would be a single line entry.
Fox adds that despite the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation contentions, the money given to First Nations is not taxpayers' dollars but "Indian money." The CTF was a strong proponent for the FNFTA, claiming that although Chiefs and councils said their band members had access to financial records, band members had approached the CTF saying they did not.
"We think (the court proceedings) went in our favour. All indicators and comments that were made, would I think, support our situation," said Fox. "The judge did indicate ... that this (rendering a decision) would be a priority for him."
Fox says OLCN doesn't mind leading the charge against the FNFTA.
"Time is of the essence," he said. "Onion Lake had to take the initiative and take this to task. (The other bands are) supporting us and that's fine with us at this time."
In a separate court case, OLCN is challenging the validity and constitutionality of the law. No date has been scheduled for that hearing as the decision in Saskatoon court will determine if the challenge moves forward.
By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor