Sunday, November 30, 2014

FirstNations takes government to court over financial transparency law

First Nations generic
A group of First Nations protesters hold hands and dance in a circle during a demonstration in Surrey, B.C., in January 2013. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Steve Rennie, The Canadian Press
The federal government is being taken to court over a law that requires First Nations to make public their financial information.

The Onion Lake Cree Nation, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, filed a statement of claim Wednesday in the Edmonton offices of the Federal Court.

Onion Lake began its court case on the same day as the Aboriginal Affairs-imposed deadline for First Nations to post their financial documents on a public website.

"Because of the deadlines and the time frames, we decided enough is enough," Chief Wallace Fox told a news conference in Edmonton.

"On behalf of our people, the Cree people of the Onion Lake Cree Nation, the statement of claim was the last step in a long journey to get the federal government to sit and talk with the nations."

The Conservative government's First Nations Financial Transparency Act required First Nations to post audited financial statements and information about the salaries and expenses of chiefs and councillors on a public website by July 29.

By Wednesday morning, 509 of 582 of them had complied.

Aboriginal Affairs wrote to non-compliant First Nations recently to tell them they had until Nov. 26 to publish their financial information online.

If they don't, they will find themselves on a list of delinquents that the department plans to publish on its website on Thursday.

The department told those First Nations it could also require them to come up with a list of all the steps they need to take in order to prepare and publish their financial information; order third-party managers to withhold band councillors' pay; notify other departments with which they have funding agreements of their non-compliance; and go to court to get them to publish their financial information.

The tone of the letter angered some First Nations, including a number in western Canada who say they plan to resist any attempts to get them to comply with the financial-transparency law.
Cameron Alexis, Alberta regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, also spoke out against the "heavy-handed and onerous" way in which the Conservative government has gone about the new transparency rules.

"With the numbers of First Nations children in care recently called a 'national disaster,' with overcrowded housing and dozens of communities with no access to safe drinking water, with the growing number of missing and murdered indigenous women and the need for a national inquiry, one wonders why this issue is the priority," he said in a statement.

"Recent findings that the government has been quietly shuffling and reallocating money from infrastructure to other programs indicate the government should stop lecturing First Nations and abide by their own principles of accountability and transparency."

He was referring to a Canadian Press report about how Aboriginal Affairs shifted half a billion dollars meant for infrastructure over a six-year period to try to cover shortfalls elsewhere within the department.

Moving that money around only put greater strain on the Aboriginal Affairs infrastructure program, according to an internal report. Even with the reallocated money, the document said the department's social and education programs are still short.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office said it had no comment on the Onion Lake court case.

Valcourt spokeswoman Erica Meekes said the minister's office plans to put out a statement Thursday about First Nations that did not meet the deadline to post their financial documents.

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