By TODD MacKAY
Canadian Taxpayers Federation
IT’S A BIT ODD for a happy dance to breakout after a court ruling about financial reporting, but when Charmaine Stick got the decision from her lawyer, she held hands with her kids and did a little jig.
“This is a victory for all First Nations people out there who’ve been fighting for transparency and accountability,” said Charmaine. “In our culture, you know transparency and accountability is first and foremost, especially when you’re in leadership.”
Onion Lake Cree Nation has 30 days to publish financial disclosures online as required by The First Nations Financial Transparency Act, according to a Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench ruling released on June 15. The band’s lawyers are appealing, but Charmaine is confident that the decision will stand and she will find out how much her chief and council are paid and what’s happening with her community’s finances. The ruling came after Charmaine partnered with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to launch the court application last fall.
The First Nations Financial Transparency Act is simple: it requires First Nations to publish salaries and expenses for chief and council as well as basic financial documents online – the kind of information the rest of us can get with a Google search. The overwhelming majority of First Nations follow the law, but Onion Lake is one of six bands that have never complied. The previous Conservative government withheld non-essential funding from those bands, but the new Liberal government suspended all enforcement.
Charmaine’s victory enforces the legislation and for her it’s a very personal victory. The stay-at-home mom went on a 13-day hunger strike to demand accountability from her leaders during the summer of 2014. They told her she’d never get anywhere. She now has judicial validation.
The most fascinating parts of this ruling are the arguments Onion Lake left out. Rather than contesting matters of fact, Onion Lake asked the court to stay Charmaine’s application until other court proceeding conclude. Justice B.A. Barrington-Foote rejected the stay application.
“There is no evidence before me as to the political or economic reasons why Onion Lake has refused to provide and post the specified information,” wrote Justice Barrington-Foote.
Opponents of The First Nations Financial Transparency Act often raise vague concerns that transparency causes economic harm, but hundreds of First Nations communities have disclosed that information and it’s obvious those fears are unfounded.
Another omission was even more conspicuous by its absence.
“Curiously, Onion Lake did not defend this application on the basis of the constitutional issues,” wrote Justice Barrington-Foote.
In earlier legal battles, Onion Lake argued The First Nations Financial Transparency Act is unconstitutional. However, it failed to raise those arguments in relation to Charmaine’s application. In fact, those arguments have been on hold.
“Despite the passage of almost two and a half years since the action was commenced [by Onion Lake to challenge the constitutionality of the act], discoveries have not yet been scheduled,” wrote Justice Barrington-Foote.
It seems Onion Lake raised constitutional arguments as stalling tactics.
Charmaine’s victory puts pressure on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. The minister can leave grassroots citizens to ask the courts to enforce the legislation while the government does nothing. She can weaken the legislation to darken this newfound transparency. Or she can enforce the legislation and strengthen it with new protections such as an auditor general for First Nations communities.
But for Charmaine, future legal and political struggles can wait, because right now she’s celebrating. For years she’s been told she can’t question her chief and council, but she’s steadfastly held to her core belief that leaders have a sacred responsibility to serve the people with openness and honesty. The court has strengthened that belief within Charmaine and grassroots First Nations people across Canada. And it’s that growing strength that has Charmaine and her kids dancing.
Todd MacKay is the Prairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a non-partisan citizens’ advocacy group founded in 1990.