What is a Chief Worth? More than a Prime Minister?

It has been a controversy for some time as to how much Chiefs are paid. This controversy has largely been created by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) who has never been a friend to First Nations and in fact spends a lot of time and energy negatively targeting First Nations financial issues. Last week headlines screamed “80 First Nations Politicians make more than PM” (Times Colonist November 22, 2010). The CTF got pages and pages of data under the Freedom of Information Act that are kept by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada(INAC) on payments made to Chiefs and Councils.
These pages and pages of data black out the names of the First Nations but keeps the population and amount of money transferred from INAC to the First Nation. So conceivably  if you know the population of your community and how much money you get from INAC you could possibly find out what your Chief is paid, but maybe not.
In an attempt to understand how the CTF came to these conclusions I decided to study the same data. I limited my study to BC and to Chief’s salaries-not the council members. There are 15 pages of data covering 198 First Nations. I am not sure what happened to the other 5 First Nations but as I understand it INAC only recognizes 198 First Nations in BC. (you too can peruse these pages at http://www.taxpayer.com/node/13427 )
To summarize I found the following on the highest and lowest paid salaries.
8 Chiefs make less than $5000. One makes $134 and another $750. But does the Taxpayers Federation scream about poverty and chiefs being underpaid? No.
13 Chiefs make between $5000 and $10,000.
4 Chiefs make between $10,000 and $15,000.
2 Chiefs make between $15,000 and $20,000.
(Note: the poverty line for a single person is under $20,000 so 19 of our chiefs are under the poverty line unless they have other income)
8 Chiefs make in the $70,000 range
8 Chiefs make in the $80,000 range
3 Chiefs make in the $90,000 range
3 Chiefs make in the $100,000 to $120,000 range
4 Chiefs make in the $120,000 to $130,000range.
1 Chief and the highest ranking makes $145,000. This one reports a population of 101 people with an INAC contribution of $656,000.
According to my search, there is not one politician in BC that makes as much as the Prime Minister who makes $184,000 in after tax money. That is the money that goes in his pocket. The CTF tries to say that Chief’s salaries are worth a lot more because they are not taxed, yet that is the money that ends up in their pocket, just like the PM after tax money.
What is most important about these numbers is that they do not tell the whole story. They do not tell you how much other revenue the First Nations brings in through their businesses, or land leases, or proposal writing. They do not tell you how many jobs the Chief is holding down in the community in order to make the salary that is being reported. In some instances in the charts, there is more than one number for salary and honorarium. It is unclear whether you should add up the 2-4 items to get a larger salary. I chose not to as I did not know what the other numbers represented. Chances are CTF added them all up to inflate the numbers. I mention this because you can take the charts INAC put together and spin them any way you want to!
What the numbers do not tell us either is does the Chief receive any benefits? Most First Nations Chiefs do not pay into CPP or EI or have a pension or disability or additional health benefits. The Premiers and Prime Ministers walk away with a nice fat pension they can live on comfortably the rest of their lives. Not so with many chiefs.
The CTF tries as well to shock the Canadian public as to how much Chiefs get paid in travelling expenses. Without knowing where the community is, you cannot say how expensive it is to travel in from a remote or northern community. Airfare, boats, cars, hotels are not cheap and travel is a huge expense for some communities that have to travel large distances to get to meetings. Additionally, what the numbers do not tell you is how much travel is reimbursed which does happen. Again, the danger of reading numbers without having the context.
The CTF has an on line petition asking people to support Chief and councils salaries being disclosed. There is a private members bill before the House of Commons Bill C575 that makes disclosure uniform across the country. Private member’s bills rarely get passed and if they are, are not upheld by the governing party. Right now, INAC requires all audits to have a section which declares those with the highest salaries enumerated and are reported. I am not sure why further legislation is required to do that when it is already done.
Having been a Chief for 14 years I know how much time, effort, energy, and travelling it takes. It is a 24/7 job. The Chief runs the government of the First Nations. The Chief needs to be informed on all activities going on in their territory and ensure that the rights and title of the First Nation is protected and take what action is necessary to do so. The Chief has to build relations with other First nations, local, provincial and federal governments, corporations and other third parties. The Chief has to be informed on all issues affecting First Nations locally, regionally, federally and internationally. The Chief is required to attend many functions to represent the community. The Chief is engaged in high level negotiations and meetings. Often the Chief leads the economic development of the First Nation and is on all the boards or corporations, societies. The Chief needs to keep in constant communication with their members and ensure they are hearing the concerns of the membership whether it is on housing, or health or education or delivery of other services. The Chief has to deal with media and other public relations. Attending meetings in the community, in the province or federally with First Nations or governments or financial institutions or other companies is a non stop whirl. The most important job is making sure financially the community is keeping up and chasing dollars through proposal writing, lobbying, and attending functions is a huge commitment of time as well. It is a never ending job and one few members understand how much it takes to do the job.
How should Chiefs salaries be set? It is up to the community to determine how it is done. This could be  a committee or a vote of the membership or the Chief and Council themselves who then must report to the members. The community should set a process that is agreeable to them. Some communities have constitutions that set out processes for budgeting and accountability. Others have Financial Accountability Policies. Some do not share any information with their members. Whatever the process the community sets, there should be a disclosure to the community. Also, the members also needs to understand the amount of time and commitment is needed to carry out a very important job in the community. For many members who are below the poverty line and are on social assistance, paying an appropriate salary to the chief does not seem fair and are opposed to a good salary for the Chief. I say that if you want the Chief to put their entire time and energy into the community which is a must, you have to pay them enough to do so or they will need to get a job out of the community and only be able to put a part time effort in and not achieve what the community needs.   Or as is the case in non First Nations politics, you won’t get educated, experienced and qualified members to run for Chief when they won’t earn a salary that meets their qualifications and needs.
In 14 years as Chief, I never got a raise. I asked my community twice in budget meetings and both times was voted down. I was entitled to a monthly honorarium which totaled $8000.00 for the year. This covered all my internal meetings, preparation, public events. I figured out once that I was making $3.00 an hour. I was also allowed $200.00 per day for up to 6 days of meetings with external parties whether it was other First Nations at the Summit or Tribal council or with government or corporations. It was not enough to live on and I also had to be the Chief Negotiator for treaty in order to remain in the community and devote my time and attention to moving us ahead. Being a single parent, it was always a struggle, but it was something I wanted to do.
If a community can afford to pay a Chief a good salary, I think it is a good investment. If a community cannot afford to pay a Chief a good salary, you pay them what you can afford and recognize that person will be holding down 2 or 3 other jobs to support their families. You also hope that as the community makes its own source revenue that eventually the First Nation be able to pay a better salary.
The office of Chief is an honourable one. The Chief is the leader and must be supported and respected by the people in order to have a healthy functioning community. Working with the community to provide a mechanism to set Chief and Council salaries and being transparent goes a long ways to gaining and keeping that support and respect. The Canadian taxpayers Federation and others will always try and inflate numbers and create divisive issues. As a Chief in this day and age you need to be highly technical, well informed and knowledgeable on so many issues. It is a difficult, stressful, time consuming  job and chiefs should be appropriately compensated as are Premiers and Prime Ministers and CEO’s and Presidents and Deans of Universities.
And by the way, this is my analysis of the data, I am sure if you look at it, it may be slightly different. It is always important to know that data can be used and misused in many ways. Don’t take things at face value, look a little deeper and find the truth for yourself.  INAC should be accountable for producing records that are accurate, easily read and cannot be misconstrued.

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