Mr. Speaker, thank you for this opportunity on behalf of the constituents of the great Kenora riding to speak, hopefully, for the last time to this piece of legislation before it moves on to the other place and receives royal assent.
I am proud to rise today to once again explain the need for Bill C-27 and to talk about its many benefits.
Before I do, as a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, I want to thank all those who appeared before the committee during recent hearings. Their contributions have made this legislation better and stronger.
The committee heard from a number of witnesses, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, who spoke to the need for Bill C-27. They recognized that increased transparency and accountability will empower first nation members and their governments.
As do all Canadians, first nation community members want assurances that public funds are being used to improve their communities. They expect and deserve sound management practices from their elected leadership, as well as access to the information necessary to ensure that these leaders are acting in their best interests and priorities. Bill C-27 simply puts in place the same types of rules with respect to financial transparency that already apply to other levels of government in Canada. Why should first nations expect or have anything less?
Further, publicly accessible information will also boost investor confidence and create a better business environment for private sector investment on reserve. This will inevitably lead to increased economic opportunities that will help to create the conditions for healthier and more self-sufficient first nation communities.
Chief Darcy Bear of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation said it best when he stated:
You drive through my community, you'll see all the paved roads, paved streets, the good quality of life that my people, my members enjoy.... That's what good accountability brings to a community.
It is worth noting that the bill is entirely consistent with the resolution passed by first nation leadership at the Assembly of First Nations' Special Chiefs Assembly in December of 2010, where the chiefs committed to “Choose to lead by example and demonstrate to other orders of government processes for accountability”, which included:
Itemizing and publicly disclosing salaries, honoraria and expenses associated with the operations of Chief & Council;
Ensuring information about community finances and decision-making is easily accessible, and available via the internet where applicable.
That sounds a lot like the wording, spirit and intent of the bill.
Currently, there is no legislative requirement for transparency and accountability from first nation leadership. Under current funding agreements, first nation community members can ask for band-related financial information from their elected leaders, but there is no legislated obligation on the part of the administration to release it. We know that many first nations are already making their financial information public voluntarily. We appreciate that. I think it goes to reducing the amount of suspicion and political turmoil at the community level. However, not all first nation communities are doing this.
When individuals are refused information from their band council they often come to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to ask for the information to be released to them, as we have heard from various witnesses appearing before the standing committee. Some regional offices of the department receive as many as 25 to 30 informal requests each year from first nation members seeking this basic information, which would be readily available to any other constituent or any other Canadian in any other jurisdiction
At committee Phyllis Sutherland, president of the Peguis Accountability Coalition, told committee members about her community. They were unable to access salary and other financial information about their elected band officials. She in fact cited several cases where members were subject to intimidation. She insisted that this type of intimidation must stop and that those in power must be held accountable.
Similar concerns were raised in testimony by Joseph Quesnel, a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He presented research data culled from the Aboriginal Governance Index developed by the centre, which revealed that 77% of the first nation members surveyed agreed that salary information for elected officials should be made public and be accessible. However, 25% say this information is not available to their band members.
In addition to the requests for documents, the department also receives allegations and complaints regarding potential mismanagement or the misappropriation of band funds and remuneration of its elected officials. Since January 2011, there have been 1,450 such complaints.
The important point is not how many requests the department receives each year for salary information—although there are many—it is the fact that from this government’s perspective, even one request is one too many. Members must go to the department for information that should be coming directly from their own first nation. The minister would prefer not to be involved in issues that should be resolved by the community itself.
Bill C-27 removes the minister from the equation by ensuring this financial information is easily accessible to everyone who wants it. It creates a direct line of accountability between first nation leaders and their members.
The concern about accountability extends beyond government and first nation members to investors who might be deterred by a lack of reliable financial data. Bill C-27 would help address this problem by requiring first nation governments to publish annual audited consolidated financial statements, as well as a schedule of chiefs' and councillors' salaries, remunerations and expenses. Clear and consistent publication under Bill C-27 would provide potential investors with a snapshot of a community's financial situation and may lead to further opportunities for partnership and investment.
There has been misinformation spread about the bill by the opposition who opposes our government's efforts to support economic growth, investment and job creation through more accountable and transparent government. I would like to take this opportunity to clear up the misconceptions and explain what Bill C-27 would do.
First, the legislation would not set salary levels for chiefs and councillors. It would remain the first nation's responsibility to set the appropriate level of remuneration for its elected officials. The proposed act would simply ensure that financial information is disclosed to the public. This would provide band members with the information they need to hold their leadership to account. They can then use that information to determine whether funds are being spent for the benefit of the community and whether compensation levels are reasonable and appropriate.
Second, I want to make clear that the act would not require individual businesses owned by the band to publish their detailed financial statements. Rather, Bill C-27 would only require the publication of the first nation's audited consolidated financial statements. These financial statements would include any entities that, according to generally accepted accounting principles or GAP, are to be consolidated with the first nation in its financial statements, including most band-owned businesses. However, information relating to government business enterprises would be highly aggregated and would not be revealing any details that would undermine the competitiveness of their businesses.
I want to underline that this is a standard accounting principle. This rule applies to all other government-owned businesses across Canada. We are not asking anything different of first nation communities than we do of any other business or community in Canada.
As members of Parliament, we all fully disclose our salaries and special allowances to the public, as required by the Parliament of Canada Act and the Salaries Act. Not only that, but the Federal Accountability Act of 2006 has also increased the public's access to information about its government's activities and those of its members. Anyone interested in any of this data can find it without even asking. Similar laws are in place at the provincial and territorial level and most of those governments have adopted legislation requiring municipal governments to make these documents public as well.
Equally important, there is nothing in this legislation that would create any additional paperwork for first nation governments. They already produce consolidated financial statements each year, which are audited by independent accredited professional auditors. It is a requirement of their funding agreements with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
The legislation simply ensures that some of the critical documents which are already submitted to the department as part of a first nation’s funding agreement are made publicly available. This bill does not ask for anything new, except greater transparency to members.
To be clear, all that Bill C-27 would do is to require first nation governments to meet the same standards. They are the only governments in Canada that do not currently provide this basic level of information to the public, and this bill would fill that legislative gap.
As members can see, we are not proposing radical measures, nor are they onerous in terms of their additional reporting requirements. We have made every effort to make it easy for first nations to comply with this law.
It has been pointed out, for example, that not all first nations have websites. However, the bill fully addresses this point. A first nation will not be required to have its own website as a result of the legislation. If a first nation is not able to publish the information electronically itself, it can ask another organization it is a member of to post it on the community's behalf. Alternatively, the first nation could ask Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to post the information on its behalf.
Of course, it is important to recognize that having these documents published on a website does not fulfill a first nation government's obligation to make copies of financial statements available to its members. Again, many of them already do this by either distributing printed copies to households or making information available in band offices. We heard at committee instances of where a number of communities actually host a forum, somewhat akin to an annual general assembly of its members, where they review these documents.
I also want to reinforce that there have been numerous opportunities to discuss and improve this legislation, first in the context of private member's Bill C-575 introduced in the previous Parliament, and now in the context of Bill C-27.
Over the course of the committee's review of the bill, we heard concerns about how certain sectors of the text might be interpreted. These concerns focused on the language of the bill in two key areas: first, the need to report information relating to remuneration and reimbursement of expenses separately; and second, the treatment of band-controlled entities. I am pleased to say that we have listened to the concerns raised by first nations and have introduced amendments to clarify the relevant language of the bill to address these concerns. That is a process that took place at committee.
With respect to the reporting of remuneration and expenses, the original text of the bill combined the concepts of salaries and expenses into a single definition of remuneration. Although it was not the intention of the bill, we heard from witnesses that this could be interpreted to suggest that these two amounts could be reported and disclosed to the public as one aggregate figure. To make things clearer and for greater certainty, the amendments split these two concepts into two separate definitions for the purposes of the legislation, and the schedule of remuneration has been re-named in the text of the bill to “schedule of remuneration and expenses”.
As it relates to the treatment of band-owned businesses, the intention of the bill has always been to put into legislation the same practices with respect to the treatment of band entities as are currently in place in the funding agreements. We believe it is important for the users of financial statements, especially first nation members, to see summary statements that capture the activities of their government and elected officials.
The entities to be included and the manner in which their financial information is presented will be determined by the standards set out by the Public Sector Accounting Board of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants. This will ensure that the standards applying to businesses owned by other governments in Canada will also apply to first nation governments in precisely the same way.
The government worked hard to find language that strikes a balance between the need for precision and certainty in legislative drafting and complex accounting concepts. At committee we adopted an amended definition of consolidated financial statements that makes these points clear. These improvements resulted in some other small amendments but do not detract from the original intent of the bill. The only thing that has changed is the wording, which has been adjusted for clarity, greater certainty and to eliminate any confusion.
First nations people have been waiting a long time for the measures proposed in Bill C-27. They should not be asked to wait any longer for this bill to come into effect.
It was first introduced on November 23, 2011, and there has been ample time devoted to discussing views and concerns regarding this legislation. It was debated for almost six hours during second reading debate before being referred to committee, which met seven times to study and discuss Bill C-27.
During that time the committee heard from 21 witnesses from 13 different organizations. These witnesses came from a variety of organizations including the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association of Canada, and representatives from individual first nations communities.
During report stage, the House spent over six hours of debate on this bill. The NDP has had no less than 20 speakers, yet we heard no new issues raised by the opposition in all that time. In fact, one thing that we did hear was one member from across the way saying that he wanted to see one rule for all. It is great news that a member from the NDP would say that, because that is exactly what this bill strives to accomplish.
For this legislation to apply in the next fiscal year, it must come into force on or before March 31, 2013. This legislation is long overdue and will bring first nation governments in line with virtually all other governments in Canada. Our government believes that first nations people have waited long enough. We think this legislation should apply to the next fiscal year, 2013-14. This means that the publication of first nations' financial statements and salaries and expenses could occur as early as July 2014.
I am very proud of this legislation. I believe firmly that first nations deserve and expect the same level of transparency and accountability as all Canadians. The first nations financial transparency act would make that happen.
Bill C-27 will also reassure potential investors that they can safely enter into joint financial agreements, joint ventures and business undertakings with first nations. The resulting jobs and economic growth will contribute to social and economic improvements in the lives, the livelihoods and the communities of first nation members.
In short, Bill C-27 is a landmark bill that is worthy of the support of all parties. I urge all members of the House to give it their full support and vote unanimously in support of this bill.