Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to represent the concerns of my constituents from the great Kenora riding. That includes 42 first nations, 25 of which are isolated or not accessible by road.
I want to speak on just two things for the purposes of my 10 minutes.
First, on Motion No. 1, that Bill C-27 be amended by deleting clause 1,
If I have time, I will address the reporting requirements, the second issue raised by the opposition member.
Under debate is clause 1 of Bill C-27, first nations financial transparency act. The clause reads:
1. This Act may be cited as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.
Essentially, Motion No. 1 goes to the very heart of Bill C-27 and so I would like to speak about the purpose of this legislation and why this is necessary and therefore its title.
In accordance with provisions in their funding agreements, first nation governments are already required to provide Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada audited consolidated financial statements and a schedule of remuneration and expenses for all elected officials. That deals with the redundancy piece that the member opposite keeps raising.
It is also a provision of these agreements that the audited consolidated financial statements be made available to the first nation membership in the community. On a large scale, this has not occurred. However, these agreements do not stipulate the manner and timing of disclosure. Many first nation governments have put into place sound accountability practices that ensure transparency and help to build confidence among members and other stakeholders.
I have said repeatedly at committee that, as often may be the case, the simple process of making these documents publicly accessible, in my respectful and humble view, will demonstrate that a great number of chiefs and councils are actually in full compliance and very competently managing their financial affairs, despite any challenges we hear. However, this bill is necessary because some first nations have not yet consistently developed and adopted these practices.
We have heard from first nations' constituency members and organizations with substantive and substantial concerns. As a result, questions have emerged about the financial decisions of first nations leaders and how first nations' monies are being spent; questions that can undermine the confidence of the public in all first nation governments, including those who are working to be transparent in their leadership. Indeed, at committee we heard from several witnesses who strive for that.
Ensuring the public disclosure of financial information would help to clarify the actual situation by explicitly stating the expectations of first nations in law with respect to accountability for the financial management of their governments and transparency in the remuneration and expenses that they incur in their roles as chief in council and any other activities with which they are involved. Greater transparency of financial information, including these notes for remuneration and expenses, would remove the speculation that currently exists and dispel rumours around the management of funds by first nation governments and the salaries of their leaders.
The bill would ensure that first nation community members have the information necessary to make informed decisions about their leadership and are better prepared to hold their government to account. The bill, and the easier access to financial information it promotes, would also support better policy development as it relates to first nation people.
One of the witnesses who appeared before the committee, John Graham of Patterson Creek Consulting, pointed out, “...public policy is always better if there is essentially good information”.
However, while this information is currently provided to the department, it cannot be shared in any meaningful way to promote this kind of public discussion. We want that conversation to occur between community members and their government. We, as a department or a minister, would prefer not to get involved in it. This goes to the very essence of self-governance, that conversation taking place between those two constituents and not having the department and/or minister involved in it.
The public disclosure of financial information of first nations governments has another benefit of increasing the confidence of potential investments. That level of transparency, with more complete and accurate information about potential partners, joint ventures that we are hearing about and exciting business development on reserve can flourish when these kinds of building blocks are put in place in the first nation people around the concepts of governance in an effort to put it out there to their community members and to the public.
In particular, I am thinking of the potential for business parties to engage in what we know has the potential to be flourishing new relationships in all kinds of first nations communities, particularly in the isolated communities of the great Kenora riding and Timmins—James Bay. Some of these communities are landlocked by good economic opportunities. They are finding ways to do that. We are working in partnership with them, with small business centres across our vast region. We look forward to a more integrated level of participation by first nations communities in our resource sector and the likes. These kinds of businesses want to understand what the financial positions of their first nations governments are and build on the strength of that relationship, from things like that.
We see this as an opportunity to further develop relationships with the private sector in addition to strengthening the relationship with the private sector to strengthen their economy.
The second thing I would like to say on the subject of reporting requirements, which was mentioned earlier, is that there is no mention in this bill of the burden currently facing first nations when it comes to reporting. First nations already have to produce consolidated financial statements each year, which are audited by an independent, accredited professional auditor as a requirement of their funding agreements with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, or AANDC.
The bill's objective is to increase transparency and accountability, requiring that these financial statements be disclosed to members of the first nations community as well as the general public. Once these practices become the norm, first nations will be in a much better position to prove that they deserve to benefit from more flexible funding arrangements. The purpose of the bill is to increase the financial transparency of first nations government, although we do expect this to reduce the reporting burden for many first nations in the medium and long term. This is not an immediate priority.
Bill C-27 is going to deal with the residual issues we have heard from some important stakeholders. We have heard from grassroots citizens across the country, the Peguis First Nation, first nations communities out in Nova Scotia and community members from the great Kenora riding, to name a few.
The private sector is excited about new relationships with first nations communities. We appreciate the critical mass of first nations communities that have chosen to lead by example and demonstrate to other orders of government processes for accountability. This includes furnishing these documents by way of public access, typically on the Internet for their members, disclosing salaries, honoraria and expenses associated with the operations of the chief and council specifically and ensuring information about community infrastructure and decision making would be easily accessible and available via the Internet and elsewhere as applicable.
Our government is not only confident that the bill will be supported by most first nations members seeking to improve the transparency and accountability of their band governments, but we also believe that first nations elected officials will welcome this opportunity, through the bill, to demonstrate that they are already operating as accountable governments. The next important step is simply to supply that information to their constituent members.