THUNDER BAY, ON ----- January 7, 2012 -- The story begins last year, when the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a non-profit taxpayers’ watchdog, used Access to Information Laws to expose cases of outrageously high salaries found on many reserves across Canada. Nation-wide, roughly 160 reserve politicians were making more than their provincial premiers.
The news really struck a chord with Janette Peterson, a member of the Annapolis Valley Reserve in Nova Scotia. It was revealed that the chief of her tiny community of 112 people had been pulling in approximately $152,167 annually; tax-free.
For someone living off reserve and paying income taxes, that was the equivalent of about $261,000. Not surprisingly, the band’s elected councillors were also loading up with public funds; one pulled in $172,325 while the other made $120,060; again, both figures are income tax free.
According to Peterson, band members had no idea what was going on. She told one media outlet “we as band members didn’t know what their salaries were until the [Canadian Taxpayers Federation] released all their information.”
Fortunately, instead of sitting around and complaining about the news, Janette Peterson channelled her anger into action; she decided to run for chief.
She addressed the pay issue straight on and promised to let band members decide how much she would make as chief. Talk about refreshing news. After all, taxpayers have been burned many times in the past by politicians on and off reserve who take advantage of the ability to set their own pay levels.
Well, Peterson's promise must have been a hit with voters as she went on to win with 71 per cent of the vote.
Even better, she doesn't appear to be one of those politicians that says one thing to get elected and then does another once in office. In multiple interviews since her recent election victory, Peterson has stuck to her guns –continuing to promise that “the right thing to do is to have band members vote on my wages.”
When the Canadian Taxpayers Federation started exposing reserve politicians’ wild salaries a couple years ago, Ms. Peterson’s story was exactly the type of change we were hoping to accomplish.
We hoped that in situations where reserve politicians were paying themselves outrageous sums and hiding it from their band members, transparency would empower their communities to vote for change or better hold their leaders accountable. If band members chose to continue to elect politicians with sky-high salaries, at least they would do so in full knowledge. And if they decided paying their politicians more than generous sums was more important than clean drinking water that was their choice.
At the same time, we pushed the federal government to place reserve politicians’ pay information online so taxpayers and band members alike would know more about the reserve politician they saw in the newspaper asking for more money from Ottawa.
Thankfully, reserve pay information will soon be online as Ottawa has legislation currently before the House of Commons which would require such disclosure annually.
Transparency won’t solve all the problems on reserves, but it will help band members separate the good apples from the bad ones. Three cheers for chiefs like Peterson who aren’t waiting for legislation to be passed before doing what’s right.
Colin Craig is the Prairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation