Ombudsman needed for aboriginal affairs

If you've been reading the opinion section of the Vancouver Sun, you were probably intrigued by the discussion on the need for an ombudsman for aboriginal affairs.

The discussion was initiated by columnist Barbara Yaffe, who backed a suggestion by Tanis Fiss of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. In calling for the establishment of an ombudsman for aboriginal affairs, Fiss pointed out the federal Indian Act does not require band councils to reveal their budgets to the federal auditor-general, taxpayers or even their own band members, though Yaffe notes many willingly do. Nor does the Human Rights Act, which can play a role in regulating labour laws and employment disputes, apply to native bands.

"This absence of oversight wouldn't be so problematic were it not for the fact tales keep cropping up about corruption and misspending by band councils," wrote Yaffe.

In his reply, Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said his organization has long endorsed and worked for the establishment of such an institution, as well as a companion first nations auditor-general. He says the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples made the same recommendations almost a decade ago.

Refuting Yaffe's comments on corruption at the band level, Fontaine said Indian Affairs' 2002-03 figures show that out of 557 audits conducted of First Nations financial management, auditors found only 16 cases (less than three per cent) where it was necessary to file an adverse opinion or deny the band council's statement.

"Where there are legitimate problems, let's deal with them," Fontaine concluded.

If Fontaine and Yaffe agree on the need for an ombudsman and an auditor-general, can we all agree?

Should individuals living in First Nations communities have the right to contact an independent ombudsman with the power to investigate and publicly report on complaints and propose changes in a band's administrative practices or in the conduct of Indian Affairs? Absolutely.

In the past, the News has been called out to Ts'kw'aylaxw and Xaxli'p when band members blockaded band offices to protest alleged financial irregularities. The protests fizzled; nothing was proved. This spring, a telephone call summoned us to T'it'q'et where we were told a group of band members was protesting outside the band office. When our reporter arrived, we were told there was no story.

An ombudsman and/or an auditor-general would have the authority to deal with band members' legitimate concerns.

We see the need for more transparency in other areas, as well. For example, some bands report who the candidates were and how many votes they received in elections. But not all bands are that forthcoming. In the last election for Seton Lake band chief, we were told only the winner's name. We were told the names of the rival candidates could not be released to the paper, and the vote tally could not be made public, either.

Can you imagine if the District of Lillooet conducted an election for mayor, with the results given only to some people but not to others, and not to the local media?

Wendy Fraser

Bridge River Lillooet News AUG 24th 2005.

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