moved that Bill C-575, An Act respecting the accountability and enhanced financial transparency of elected officials of First Nations communities, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-575, First Nations Financial Transparency Act.
Why have I introduced the bill? The answer is simple. I believe all elected officials of first nations communities must not only say that they are accountable in terms of their salaries and reimbursement of expenses, they must also take steps to show they are accountable and absolutely transparent when it comes to their earnings as elected representatives.
Indeed, this standard is the very definition of political transparency, not just saying we are clear and open, but plainly showing the people we are elected to represent that we are clear and open. Many first nations elected officials already meet this standard. Those officials who do not meet this standard must be required to reach it. They must be required to ensure that all members of first nations communities and all Canadians can easily access detailed information about the salaries and reimbursement of expenses of first nations and elected officials.
How exactly would Bill C-575 enhance the transparency of first nations elected officials? The answer is clear and straightforward. Bill C-575 would require first nations that receive funds from the federal government in the form of grants, contributions and allowances to publish annually the salaries and expenses these communities pay to their chiefs and councillors.
How would the bill compel first nations to meet this requirement? Bill C-575 would require that the annual audited financial statements of each first nation include a schedule of remuneration. As its name indicates, this schedule would provide detailed information on the salaries and reimbursement of expenses paid by a first nation to its chiefs and councillors.
The bill would further require first nations to make their schedule of remuneration publicly available within 120 days after March 31 in each calendar year. After that time, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development would have full legal authority to make it public on the INAC website.
That is Bill C-575.
Why am I convinced that this proposed legislation is worthy of support? There are four reasons: transparency, accountability, consistency and practicality. Let me go through those reasons one by one.
First, the bill is a logical step forward in improving the transparency of first nations governments. First nations councils must now provide Indian and Northern Affairs Canada with annual audited financial statements. This requirement is an essential part of funding agreements reached between the federal government and individual first nations communities. First nations prepare these financial statements in accordance with the principles of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants and have these statements verified by an independent auditor who is a member in good standing of an accredited provincial association of auditors.
Bill C-575 is simply a commonsense extension of that already sensible requirement. Indeed, many first nations have already taken the steps outlined in the bill. They have posted on their website financial information that covers all assets and expenditures of the first nation, including money spent on the salaries and reimbursements of expenses of chiefs and councillors. In fact, several first nations go to great lengths to make this information available to community members. They display it on their community websites. They feature it in householder mailings. They post it in band offices.
Chiefs and councillors from these first nations recognize the value in ensuring government operations and the actions and decisions of elected officials are clearly visible to all. These leaders recognize that their citizens share a fundamental right to know how their money is being spent. Unfortunately, not all first nations reach this standard.
Current practice is uneven. Some first nations make available information on spending and reimbursement of expenses only on request. In fact, members of first nations communities often ask officials of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to provide them with this vital information. Government officials can and do. However, the the Privacy Act and recent court decisions mean that government officials can only supply aggregate amounts of spending and reimbursement of expenses, no details and to the requesters only.
Do we really believe this is the best way for members of first nations communities to access financial information for their elected officials?
Even more troubling, we have all heard reports of some first nations governments that refused members access to financial information. Detailed financial information for the salaries and reimbursement of expenses paid to first nations chiefs and councillors should be and must be readily accessible to members of all first nations communities. It should be, it must be and under Bill C-575, if passed, it will be.
This bill is directed at disclosure of remuneration and expenses for elected officials in first nations governments, chiefs and councillors only. It does not apply to unelected officials of first nations governments. At the same time, first nations will retain full responsibility for determining the salaries and other forms of compensation for their chiefs and councillors. Nothing in this bill will change that.
By requiring first nations governments to disclose detailed information on the salaries and reimbursement of expenses of chiefs and councillors, the bill would also make these elected officials more accountable to the members they serve. It would give first nations members the vital information they need to make wise, informed decisions about their communities. Indeed, knowing how much their elected representatives make in salary and reimbursement of expenses goes to the very heart of political accountability, which is the second reason for supporting the bill.
Accountability is a fundamental principle of Canadian political life that we all know to be true. This fundamental principle of accountability is the basis of laws that legislatures across Canada have passed to clearly spell out how much elected officials and even senior executives in governments earn each year. On top of that, governments across the country have established methods to fully disclose the amount and the nature of expenses being reimbursed to elected and unelected officials of government. We in the House abide by those rules.
All citizens of first nations have a right to know how much their chiefs and councillors are being paid. It is also knowledge that should encourage an atmosphere of greater trust and openness between band councils and members and among community members as a whole. It is knowledge that helps eliminate controversy over compensation and focuses the public discussion where it really belongs, on fundamental quality of life issues such as housing, health care and education.
All Canadians, not just members of first nations communities, should be able to access detailed information on how much first nations chiefs and councillors are being paid. Some first nations leaders are reported to have said that they are not accountable to the taxpayers of Canada, that they are representatives of first nations citizens, not Canadian citizens.
That view is very short-sighted. Canadians support first nations' aspirations and goals. Canadians appreciate the benefits of accountability and transparency and understand its power in helping to create strong, prosperous, self-sufficient first nations communities and transform the lives of members of these communities. By making first nations leaders more accountable to the men and women of Canada, Bill C-575 would strengthen Canadians' support for first nations governments and assist to demystify certain general, unfavourable preconceptions about first nations.
That leads me to the third reason I introduced Bill C-575. This bill will bring greater consistency to reporting requirements of first nations governments. As I mentioned earlier, current practice is uneven. Some first nations go to great lengths to make available information on spending and reimbursement of expenses. Other communities make available this information only on request, while some refuse members access to financial information altogether.
Why should consistency be such an important characteristic of the operations of first nations governments? Consistent practices and procedures help keep first nations governments transparent and accountable and help make the services that governments provide more reliable and effective.
That is why chiefs, councillors, auditors, financial officers and other key officials from first nations governments across Canada meet together and work hard to share best practices and bring greater consistency, and through consistency, greater transparency, accountability and effectiveness to their operations.
Bill C-575 brings a consistent approach to disclosing the salaries and reimbursement of expenses of elected officials and enshrines that approach in Canadian law.
The fourth and final reason that Bill C-575 should have the support of the House is the bill's practicality.
Some first nations chiefs are reported to have said that the bill is impractical as it will increase the reporting burden on first nations governments. That simply is not true. First nations governments are already required to provide to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada a schedule that includes the money paid for salaries and expenses of chiefs and councillors. Bill C-575 will require first nations to disclose this schedule, which they already submit to the department. So there is no increase in reporting.
Another concern raised by some first nations chiefs is that modestly paid leaders are being wrongly tainted by a few who garner outsized incomes relative to the small population of their community. That may be so, but the best way to deal with this perception is not by burying our heads in the sand, but through transparency, accountability, consistency and practicality.
The best way to dispel this perception is in fact Bill C-575, a bill that brings all these elements to bear on this important matter, a bill that is worthy of the House's support.
I urge all hon. members of the House to support Bill C-575.