Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak on this piece of legislation today.
There are those who argue that it is not necessary to enshrine transparency and accountability in legislation governing first nations' financial transactions. Those people appear to be content to let band officials decide whether they want to make available to members the information about how community funds are spent. They seem willing to leave such decisions to chance. Complaints by some first nation residents about their community leaders certainly seem to verify this observation, at least in certain cases. Nonetheless, I remind the House that we have heard disturbing tales about abuses of power.
For example, the Quebec resident Michael Benedict is a member of the Coalition of Abenaki Citizens for a Just, Transparent and Accountable Abenaki Government. He reported that:
My spouse and I have been harassed, my house vandalized and members of our local accountability organization have been intimidated for speaking out.
He went on to say:
Local elected officials were afraid we would empower Abenaki citizens to take a stand against abuse of power, misappropriation of public money and unavailability of information. C-27 will help improve transparency.
We have heard similar concerns in other parts of the country as well. For instance, Bev Brown of the Squamish First Nation has said:
When grassroots people request financial information from band council they are often threatened with support cuts from the band and are shunned in the community....
Like Michael Benedict, she believes that:
C-27 will help band members because it will allow them to view the material online and anonymously.
The problem boils down to this: Even though community members may ask for details about the remuneration of their chiefs and councillors, unless their leaders choose to release this information, there is no guarantee they will ever see it.
Now, one should not jump to the conclusion that this is the norm. Certainly, many first nations make every effort to provide this information to their community members. The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, which is forthcoming with this kind of financial information, is a case in point. There is no question that some band councils display these records on their websites while others provide details in householder mailings or post them in their bands' offices. For that, they should be commended.
However, it appears that this is not the practice followed by all. The fact is that every year the federal government receives complaints from first nation residents that they cannot find out what the salaries of their chiefs and councillors are, or the specific work they do to earn their pay. Nor is there any accountability regarding reimbursement of expenses for activities that sometimes are a complete mystery to community members. In fact, many first nation members do not get to see the community's audited consolidated financial statements at all.
In those cases, everything may in fact be above board and the salaries or other financial compensation being paid to first nation leaders may well be worth every last penny. However, unless the books are open for the community members to judge, there is simply no way to know if that is true.
Testimony at the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, of which I am a member, addressed the legislation earlier this fall and suggested that the examples I have cited are not isolated ones. Research data from the aboriginal governance index presented by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy indicates that 25% of first nations fail to provide financial information regarding salaries and expenses to their band members.
Admittedly, this is not the majority, but I am sure that all parties would agree, or certainly should agree, that one in four is very high. Indeed, even one such incident is one too many in a country that prides itself on being a democracy.
While compensation disclosure is basic information that is freely and easily available in all other jurisdictions in Canada, too many of the country's first nation leaders still refuse to make it available to their members. This is despite the fact that our country's chiefs have acknowledged the need to be more forthcoming.
I would remind my hon. colleagues that the Assembly of First Nations' chiefs passed a resolution at their special chiefs assembly in December of 2010 regarding financial disclosure. They affirmed the need to publicly release information regarding salaries and expenses to their members. They also agreed to make financial information available via the Internet, where applicable.
Just over half of the more that 600 first nations have their own websites. However, to date, very few have actually posted salary and remuneration information on the Internet. This does not suggest that all of the others have anything to hide, but it does confirm that good intentions do not automatically translate into good results. The current voluntary approach clearly does not always satisfy first nation members' right to know.
The assurance of a transparent, accountable, local government is the minimum that first nations members should expect in a democracy like ours. What first nations residents deserve and want is transparency and tangible information from their elected representatives when it comes to such issues.
Bill C-27 would ensure there are written, legal and binding guarantees that financial information will be freely and regularly released by first nation governments to local residents. The legislation would remove any opportunity to leave financial disclosure open to interpretation. It would put an end to the questionable practices of some leaders who think they do not need to account for their salaries and expenses, or for the way financial decisions are made. First nation governments are the only governments in Canada that do not currently have a legislated requirement to make this basic financial information public. The bill before us is designed to address that gap.
Once passed, the act would require all first nations not under a self-government agreement to publish the salaries and expenses they pay to their chiefs and councillors on an annual basis. This means that they would need to disclose things like wages, commissions, bonuses, fees, honorariums, dividends and any other financial or non-monetary benefits they may receive. The entire remuneration received by chiefs and councillors would be disclosed, not just a portion of their remuneration paid for from funds transferred by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The proposed act also stipulates that information must be provided about spending related to transportation, accommodations, meals, hospitality and other expenses. I would note, however, that Bill C-27 would focus only on the political leaders of first nation governments. It would not apply to their appointed officials or senior staff.
The proposed legislation goes further than Bill C-575,, the private member's bill on which it is based. My hon. colleagues will recall that it died on the order paper when the last election was called. The new bill builds on the basic tenets of that earlier legislation, but goes further. Under Bill C-27, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada would also be required to publish the audited consolidated financial statements, as well as the schedule of remuneration for elected officials, for first nations all across Canada, as soon as the information is available.
It is expected that these records would also be made available in band offices, as well as be posted on their websites. As I know, not every first nation has a website. The community could request that another organization, such as a tribal council, a first nation organization, or even Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada itself, post the information on its behalf.
In addition, the new act would require that audited consolidated financial statements of first nation governments be prepared annually and disclosed to community members and the general public. The audited consolidated financial statements would include information related to any entities that, according to generally accepted accounting principles, are to be consolidated with the financial statements of the first nation, such as band-owned businesses.
Before anyone suggests that this could hurt those businesses' competitiveness, let me set the record straight. Bill C-27 would not require each individual business owned by the band to publish its detailed financial statements. All that is asked for is the publication of audited consolidated financial statements of the first nation as a whole. This would include entities that, according to accounting rules, are consolidated with the first nation, including band-owned businesses. This is simply standard accounting practice. These same principles and rules already apply to government-owned businesses all across Canada.
It is important to recognize that these statements are highly aggregated. Consequently, they would not be required to reveal any proprietary information that would undermine the competitiveness of a first nation's business or that of its partners. In fact, in response to concerns raised by witnesses appearing before the standing committee, the language of the bill has been amended to ensure it matches this spirit and intent.
I also want to be very clear about something else. We are not trying to create extra paperwork or to add red tape that might deter communities from attracting business development. Bill C-27 has been crafted so that no new reports are required. I repeat, no new reports are required. Do not forget that first nations are already required to produce annual consolidated financial statements audited by independent accredited professional auditors. As well, schedules of remuneration and expenses for the chiefs and councillors are a condition of their funding agreements with the federal government.
All that will change once the bill becomes law is that first nations will be legally obligated to share this information with the members of their bands. As I have already noted, many first nation elected officials already practice transparent and accountable reporting of their actions. Indeed, this is a requirement of self-government agreements, which explains why communities with signed agreements would be exempt from the act. However, those who have yet to demonstrate openness and willingness to be accountable to their communities and members must be held to the same standard and that is what the first nations financial transparency act would ensure.
Any concerns that first nation members have about how their communities' moneys are managed can be addressed if first nation governments meet this new accountability standard. This legislation is a win-win-win, no matter how one looks at it. Most essential is that Bill C-27 would make sure that first nation residents have access to the necessary information to make sound decisions about their leadership and their community's future. This goes to the very heart of a democratic society.
Equally important, it would enhance the confidence of all Canadians in first nation governments. Perhaps most promising is that his act would ensure potential investors that they can safely enter into joint financial agreements and business undertakings with first nations. This could lead to social and economic improvements in the lives and livelihoods of first nation members. When businesses create those kinds of opportunities, it opens up many new prospects for first nation members. It provides jobs and economic opportunities, which could make a real difference in many of these communities.
As the Winnipeg Free Press stated in an editorial about Bill C-27 on November 23:
The transparency law may not spark a revolution, but it will certainly enhance accountability and could lead to demands for more reforms, which are desperately needed to raise the living standards of Canada's first people.
That, at the end of the day, is really what the bill is all about. It would provide the legislative foundation upon which to build strong communities and strong economies to create a better quality of life for people living on reserve. What we are talking about here are those opportunities, the business prospects, the economic growth and the jobs that could be created. First nation members, indeed all Canadians, need Bill C-27. This legislation would ensure that first nation community members can count on law and reason, rather than passion, when it comes to good government. They would have written assurance that they can hold their leaders to account.
Frankly, I cannot fathom why there would be any opposition to this reasoned and reasonable legislation. I, for one, am proud to stand behind this progressive act that would put an end to practices that are all too often denying first nations people the same access to fundamental financial freedom as other Canadians. The first nations financial transparency bill would guarantee that first nation residents would enjoy the same democratic rights as all other Canadians.
As I have already mentioned, many first nations already provide this information to their members. It is the same kind of information that is available to citizens across Canada. Certainly here in the House as members of Parliament and in the other place, our salaries are disclosed through the Parliament of Canada Act and through the Salaries Act. That legislation lays out a transparent formula that calculates our salaries and provides for the publication of those details, both for regular incomes and for special allowances that are added to the salaries of MPs who take on extra responsibilities. It is also subject to conflict of interest and ethics legislation.
The Government of Canada is not, by any means, the only jurisdiction that requires this disclosure. Many provinces across Canada require similar transparency and accountability. There are examples from Newfoundland and Labrador. That province has the Financial Administration Act, which permits the provincial legislature to table public accounts each year. In Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick there are similar laws as well.
Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta all have legislation governing the duty of municipalities to prepare and publish annual financial statements. Territorial governments also hold themselves to this standard. The Government of the Northwest Territories makes its annual financial statements readily available on its website. The Government of Nunavut, through its Financial Administration Act, requires the government to publicly account for its expenditures for the previous year by laying the public accounts before the legislative assembly.
Precise wording of transparency and accountability legislation obviously varies from province to province, but the fact remains that almost all Canadian taxpayers have a guarantee in law that they can access the basic financial information they require to hold their elected representatives accountable for their decisions and their actions. I think that is only to be accepted in a democracy.
The first nations financial transparency act would guarantee that first nation residents would enjoy the same democratic rights as all other Canadians. Bill C-27 would be good for first nation communities, it would be good for business and it would be good for democracy. For all these reasons, I encourage all parties to give the proposed legislation their full endorsement.