Just from the name of the act, you may sense immediately that you’re not getting the whole story.

Passed in March of 2013, the law is only truly coming into effect now. It’s been sold as a way to finally peel the curtain back on the near-universal financial opacity of First Nations — after all, would Ottawa impose an across-the-board law if that wasn’t the case?

The FNFTA (pronounced effin-F-T-A) requires First Nations “to make public the annual audited consolidated financial statements they must already prepare, as well as a schedule of Chiefs’ and Councillors’ salaries and expenses.”

That’s how Bernard Valcourt, the non-Indian Indian Affairs Minister, described the gist of the act in a letter posted to the department website. (The name of the Indian Affairs department was “modernized” some years ago to become Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, but given its history I opt to call it Indian Affairs.) Valcourt called the act “an important milestone for those First Nation community members who have been calling for greater transparency and accountability from their Chiefs and Band Councils.”

Double standards

The deadline for First Nations to publicize their financial statements has come and gone, but not everyone has done so. (You can see the list of Very Bad Indians here.). Now those non-compliant First Nations may face such consequences as a court order and the withholding of funding “for non-essential programs, services and activities until the requirements are met,” according to a letter from Indian Affairs obtained by the CBC. Clearly, the department is not messing around.

In response to such tactics, at least one First Nation has filed suit against the federal government, while others say they’re ready for a legal fight and are inviting the feds to come after them.

With the exacting demands that Indian Affairs has placed on First Nations, one might expect that the department itself is an exemplar of accountability and transparency. One would be wrong.

Take, for example, the results of the Annual Report on the State of Performance Measurement in Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada for 2011-12 and 2012-13. A byzantine effort required by the Treasury Board to, among other things, measure the quality of the department’s performance and relevance, the report’s jargon-laden prose is enough to make your eyes bleed. But there are some revealing nuggets:

“While the Department collects a vast amount of data, much of the data remains unanalysed.”
“Cost-effectiveness remains an area with few indicators dedicated to it, making it difficult for the Department to report on questions of efficiency and economy.”
“A lack of communication remains one of the primary reasons why the Department continues to struggle with . . . duplication of information and missed opportunities to learn from past mistakes.”
“. . . the Department continues to struggle with the quality and credibility of its information. . .”

Get your ducks in a row, Indian Affairs

As the National Post’s John Ivison put it:

“The department was measured on 10 criteria and got the equivalent of 2 Bs, 6 Cs and 2 Ds. The only reason Aboriginal Affairs is not at rock bottom and still digging is that the previous report two years ago was even more abysmal.”

Remember, these are the people hectoring First Nations to get their shit together. Note though, that, according to Indian Affairs, “these reports are not audits nor are they ‘report cards.’” Well, okay, if you say so. Ivison also noted the minister had said things were better since the report, although the recent auditor general’s damning report on the Nutrition North food-subsidy program still leaves one kind of sceptical.

​But that’s just the department of Indian Affairs. Looking at the federal government as a whole, we encounter plenty of fogginess — financial or otherwise. In another CBC report from 2013, Canada’s information commissioner labels the current regime as “not the most transparent,” adding that when it comes to Access to Information requests, “we are at a record low in terms of timeliness . . . [and] the percentage of information being disclosed is also low.”

Seeing through

Still, perhaps it’s naïve to think double standards matter all that much in politics. And lest I be misunderstood, I’m among the least surprised of anyone to hear of instances of Indigenous corruption or mismanagement: we’re human, after all. But are such cases the norm or simply outliers? If the latter, then why invest such vehemence in this effort when far more pressing issues continue to plague Indigenous people?

Recall that in 2010 the average salary among chiefs was, according to the Assembly of First Nations, some $36,000 per year. Another analysis this September by Macleans of just over 325 chiefs’ info found a median salary of $62,426. But most media outlets look past such boring data to go straight for the outrageous cases.

Here’s the thing about transparency: it’s usually when a politician tries to paint a picture of someone else’s shortcomings that we immediately see right through them.