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A step toward accountability

As of July 1st, after 141 years of federal spending on First Nations communities, Ottawa will now be able to audit spending activities on reserves.

Colin Craig - July 15, 2008

Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson recently declared that an "act of terrorism" had been carried out against his reserve by the Pembina Valley Water Cooperative. The "act of terrorism" supposedly occurred when, after four months of not paying their water bills and receiving several warnings, the water cooperative cut off water supply to Mr. Nelson's reserve.

While the chief was quick to play the race card and decry the move as an act of terrorism, a more appropriate description might be an act of accountability. Go figure, if don't pay your bills, there will be repercussions. In fact, Manitoba Hydro and the Border Land School Division have also stopped providing services to the reserve due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately, it was the residents of the Roseau River First Nation that were caught in the middle of their chief's defiance.

This doesn't appear to be the first time that band members have fallen victim to their band council's stunts. In fact, residents have aired serious concerns as to how taxpayer dollars are being spent on the reserve. One individual went as far as providing the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) with copies of cheques written out by the band council to various individuals, including Chief Terry Nelson and other elected officials. The allegation is the cheques were written to individuals on top of their regular salary for services that were part of their regular duties.

This person's assertions are supported by public comments by band member, Linda Roberts, that appear to suggest Mr. Nelson is being paid more than Manitoba's Premier. All this sounds like the old story of the chief driving a Cadillac while his residents live in poverty doesn't it?

Because band spending is a secretive matter, neither band residents or taxpayers at large know whether the allegations are true or not. Worse yet, even the department of Indian Affairs doesn't yet know if they're true. The only way to discover the truth is with an audit of the band's finances.

Taxpayers and natives living on reserves, of course, understand this problem is not isolated to the Roseau River reserve. Consider the fact that members of four other reserves have contacted the CTF's Manitoba office in the last three months alone with similar concerns.

One reason for a lack of accountability on reserves is the fact that up until now, no one (even the department of Indian and Northern Affairs) could audit individual reserves and track how funds were being spent. Yes, over the last 141 years, the federal government has been unable to ensure that the hundreds of billions of tax dollars it has transferred to First Nations communities are used for their intended programs and services.

To address this problem, the CTF has been calling for audits of reserve spending for years. Thankfully, the federal government has finally listened. As of July 1st, Ottawa will now be able to audit the spending activities of first nation communities. This will bring them inline with other agencies that receive funding from the government.

It's not a silver bullet solution to one of Canada's most shameful legacies (the whole reserve system), but it is a step in the right direction. All taxpayers will hopefully gain greater insight into how our dollars are being spent. And finally, reserve members will gain greater comfort knowing the spending decisions made by their chiefs and elected officials will be subject to greater transparency.

To help avoid further "acts of terrorism", the CTF will take advantage of the government's new audit provisions by contacting the department of Indian and Northern Affairs to raise all questionable activities that have been brought to its attention.

Discuss this article online.

Colin Craig is the Manitoba director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

More articles by Colin Craig