Call me naïve but I will always push for people running government, not the other way around. And that can only happen when government is out in the open.
That may be distasteful for those under the harsh light of scrutiny because it invariably leads to criticism and dissent. But dissent is a crucial part of democracy. So it just doesn't sit well with me when the democratic process unfolds under a cloak of secrecy.
Last weekend the Tk'emlups Indian Band held its all-candidates meeting. Band members vote for their new chief and council on Nov. 10. Since plenty of TIB decisions affect the community surrounding it, non-band members may wonder what the candidates said during debates. What are their priorities? What did band members voice as their top concerns? We have no way of reporting on the meeting because the debate was closed to non-band members.
The TIB is not alone — most First Nations bands across the country make policy decisions, hold regular meetings of elected officials, hire and fire employees and spend tax money, all while enjoying only a sliver of the public scrutiny that the rest of Canada's public bodies are subjected to. The gist of the reason, by my understanding, is it's not really any of our business.
To be clear, I do believe it's important to respect privacy. Privacy helps individuals maintain their autonomy and individuality, and First Nations people would understandably want to hold theirs dear. But band members themselves lose out under this covertness because it makes it too easy for politicians to take advantage of their position of power.
When band members abide by the agenda of secrecy, they handcuff their own ability to keep their government accountable because they lose the help of groups that can recognize corruption and know how to expose it.
Unfortunately, many of the groups that usually hold politicians' feet to the fire are also complicit in giving a pass of anonymity to First Nation governments.
Newspapers Canada calls its National Freedom of Information Audit “the largest and… only annual, live test of the freedom-of-information system in this country.”
However band governments do not appear in their audit report.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation requested and received chief and council pay information for every reserve in Canada.
However, it reported that the data did not include names since the federal government believes it does not have the authority to release such information under current privacy laws.
Parliament is currently debating a bill sponsored by the minister of aboriginal and northern affairs to enhance the financial accountability and transparency of First Nations.
But it's feared that their efforts may only lead to further alienation of First Nations people. Wasn't it heavy-handed, top-down decrees that led bands to become insular, secretive and mistrustful in the first place?
The opposition argues the federal government has a duty to work with First Nations to improve mutual accountability, not just impose made-in-Ottawa legislation.
Obviously, the issue is a touchy one but it's worth fighting for. There's strong social value in ensuring promises are kept and trust is maintained. Transparency builds a community's ability to be successful. As always, real change will only come from the ground up with the people taking back their power.