Canada’s new Indigenous affairs minister says the department is reinstating frozen federal funding to First Nations that had not yet complied with a contentious transparency law enacted by the previous Conservative government.
But the First Nations Financial Transparency Act is technically still law and for at least one Indigenous community in northern Alberta federal money which has been frozen for three years remains in limbo.
In a highly publicized announcement last month, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett stated all discretionary compliance measures related to the Act will cease and that any funds withheld from First Nation communities will be reinstated.
The new government also pledged to review the Act when parliament resumes, sometime in 2016.
But according to Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the statement is “bogus.”
“Whatever they’re doing, it’s just a platform of ‘make me look good publicly’ but behind the closed doors, everything is still the same,” Chief Adam told Ricochet.
“They want all my financial data.”
According to Adam, his community hasn't been able to receive transfer payments earmarked for essential services for the First Nation because the federal government still requires the community report all of its financial data going back to 2013.
“They haven’t released one penny to ACFN,” says Adam.
“Not even education dollars, not even health dollars, nothing whatsoever. All programs are being withheld from ACFN.”
The First Nations Financial Transparency Act has been long fought by First Nation leaders and communities across the country, who called it unilateral and a top-down approach. The former Conservative government described it as a means of enforcing transparency and accountability in First Nations.
The Act, which became law in 2013, required First Nation communities to submit their financial data to the government, where it would be publicly posted on the internet.
First Nation governments that didn't comply with the act were punished by having certain federal funds withheld. A total of $12-million had been withheld from dozens of First Nations by the time the new Liberal government took power.
While the Conservatives were still in government, they tried to sue several First Nations into complying with the law, including the Council of First Nations of Thunderchild, Ochapowace, Onion Lake, Sawridge, Athabasca Chipewyan, and Cold Lake First Nation.
Those First Nations fought back, arguing that the federal government didn't have the authority to open their books and that forcing them to comply violated treaty rights.
Several First Nations were also concerned that revealing all financial data could sour any potential business deals.
But in last month’s statement, Minister Bennett declared any court actions against First Nations who did not comply with the Act would be suspended. This was portrayed as in keeping with the government’s commitment to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples.
But it’s little help for Chief Adam.
“We’ve had to scrounge up money from all over the place,” he says.
”Trudeau and the Liberal government, to me it’s just a ploy of the same old tactic, ‘here we go chasing that carrot’, but we’re not chasing that carrot.”
In December, it was reported just 38 of 581 First Nations did not comply with the Act for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
Joseph Quesnel, an independent policy analyst based in Nova Scotia, says he isn't sure why the Liberal government would remove the teeth of the legislation itself when so many were complying anyway.
Quesnel says he hopes it’s not just to 'appease' First Nation leaders and the Assembly of First Nations.
“I think the main benefit of this legislation is for First Nation band members, for average band members out there who want this stuff,” says Quesnel.
He says a ‘troubling minority’ of First Nations across Canada who will not share financial information with the government nor to its members should still raise eyebrows.
“It’s not like the bill is imposing a salary level on chief and council.”
“[If] they’re against a basic transparency [such as] revealing salary, there’s a problem.”