Reasonable Doubt: Kwikwetlem chief story stokes racist tensions in Canada

There has been a lot of media coverage about the Kwikwetlem chief who earned almost $1 million last year (tax-free!) for his work on behalf of his First Nation. Some media outlets are calling him the “million-dollar chief”. The general public seems to be pretty upset.

The Kwikwetlem First Nation posted a statement explaining that Ron Giesbrecht derived his income from his job as chief ($4,800 per year plus expenses) and his job as economic development officer ($80,000 per year) with a bonus of 10 percent for economic development contracts (a one-time payment of $800,000).

The million-dollar chief story arises from the relatively new First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which requires all First Nations to post audited financial statements online and to provide them to their members. If a First Nation does not comply, then anyone—whether they are a member of the First Nation or not—can apply to court to force the First Nation to post the information online.

The million-dollar chief story is another example of the “corrupt chief” narrative that appears to play a role in how many Canadians understand First Nations governance. The fact that Chief Giesbrecht did not pay taxes on his income is another sticking point for many people.

There are a lot of myths surrounding why and when First Nations people do not pay taxes.  The rules are more restrictive than most people know. The courts have interpreted the tax exemptions under the Indian Act to apply in a limited set of circumstances: only for “status Indians” and only for taxes in relation to property or income that is connected to or situated on a reserve. First Nations people who live, shop, and work off of reserve pay the same taxes as a typical taxpayer.

The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that the purpose of the Indian Act tax exemption is not to remedy the economically disadvantaged position of First Nations people in Canada or to bring economic benefits to them; rather the purpose is to protect First Nations reserves from being dispossessed. The Indian Act places a priority on reserves being communally held by the First Nation and preventing the land from being alienated to third parties, even government. Taxes could be used by government to erode a First Nation’s reserve interests.

For the most part, the tax exemptions in the Indian Act are also not a result of (fair or otherwise) bargaining between Canada and First Nations. In fact, the Indian Act is a piece of legislation that was imposed on First Nations people by the Canadian government.

The Indian Act’s restrictions on the transfer of reserve land to third parties actually cause a variety of problems for First Nations. It is difficult to get a mortgage or loan for economic development when you cannot offer the land as collateral. Imagine negotiating for a mortgage when the bank cannot foreclose on your land?

The “corrupt chief” narrative stokes race-based or racist tensions that exist in Canada, which are often at the root of the violent reality faced by indigenous people today, especially LGBTQ and two-spirited people, women, and children. Read the comment sections of the media coverage about Chief Giesbrecht. The responses often refer to untrue, stereotypical narratives applied across the board to all indigenous communities.

A key problem with “corrupt chief” stories has to do with the context that they are operating in. People generally interpret and understand news stories through their own belief systems, which unfortunately often includes untrue stereotypes about indigenous people and indigenous governance.

Intentionally or not, “corrupt chief” stories end up twisting and obscuring public opinion away from the real, complicated challenges that indigenous people face. For example, these stories feed into the misconception that indigenous people are to blame for their own challenges. The reality is that colonialism has been an unwanted, violent experience that has caused long-term, lasting effects.

Canada is less than 100 years away from making it illegal for First Nation children to attend any education institution that was not a residential school. Then in 1933, Canada changed the law further so that residential school principals assumed the legal guardianship of First Nation children attending residential schools. The last residential school did not close until 1996.

The devastating effects of residential schools continue today, likely laying the foundation for many of the challenges that First Nations disproportionately face, including incarceration, violence, and substance abuse. Many children died, were abused, and were completely separated from their family, culture, and identity.

Cursory reporting on “corrupt chief” stories obscure this point, painting First Nations’ governance with an underserving, broad brush that ignores the good, hard work that many chiefs across Canada are doing, often for paltry pay. These stories—like many stories of people getting along and doing their job—are unfortunately less headline worthy.

The writer would like to thank the indigenous people and lawyers he spoke with for their valuable insight and contributions to this article, and respects their request not to be quoted.

Comments (35) Add New Comment
MarkFornataro
Great piece. This kind of info. should be part of mandatory teaching starting in elementary school in order to create compassionate kids, but we need compassionate, smart adults to start the ball rolling.Ron Giesbrecht's income is probably paltry compared to that of many corporate CEOs. Maybe that could be pointed out in school curriculum too in order to establish some fair context.
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Canadian
The only thing stoking racism in Canada is First Nations getting preferential treatment under Canadian law. All Canadians should be equal.
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Huh?
I'm not sure I understand this strange commentary. It seems to be saying that questioning the morality of one person making so much money from taxpayer funds is due to racism and a misunderstanding of First Nations culture, yet I have seen other members of the same band express anger and disgust at this chief and posing the same questions. In addition I read today that these same members are also asking for the chief to repay the money and to step down.

I have to say I'm disappointed because we look to The Straight to ferret out people in power who appear to have abused their positions, yet this piece merely pushes it aside and using the racist card. Since the money came from my taxes I feel that I have a right to know if it's being used improperly or not and I'm glad that other news sources are putting race aside and are willing to question the matter instead of putting on blinders.
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Dave Turchynsky
The Harper Partygovernment is doing this to create division within the First Nation communities. He doesn't need to worry about non-First Nations being divided. He's accomplished that already.
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Mick Patrick
Mark Fornataro writes that the article is the type of thing that ought to be "part of mandatory teaching starting in elementary school in order to create compassionate kids." He obviously does not have school-aged children. I have three and each of them hears, every year, about the wonders of Aboriginal culture and the horrors of European colonization. They learn nothing about world history or global politics generally, but by God, they know how to spout the party line.
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I am Canadian Too
Rich bankers and other corporate executives get far more preferential treatment under Canadian law, and the income they earn is well sheltered from taxation through various tax loopholes. Most of us are not rich enough to take advantage of those loopholes. Where in the equality in that?
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SIKSIKA First Nation STICK IN THE MUD
Corruption is Corruption.
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George
Everyone must be curious, what should a salary/commission scheme look like for a business development officer? An experienced BDO might get $75k with 5%, or $50k + 7%. If anyone knows where I can get a BDO job with no experience at $80k with 10% commission, please let me know.
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XB
There are a number of problems in your thinking.

You seem to blame Canada for imposing the idea of communal living on Indians, thus restricting land transfers and resulting difficulty in obtaining mortgages. Where do you think the idea of a reserve being communal property came from? Hint, it wasn't imposed on them; try the other way around.

The main problem, I find, with your thinking is that you want to apologize to the Indians for all the hardships we've caused them. And you'd like to make it right by letting this guy steal from the rest of us. First, I cannot and will not apologize for the actions of my ancestors. I had no control over their actions, however it is a fact that they conquered this land and it is a fact that most Indians now wear blue jeans and drive trucks. Second, if the mayor of city took a 10% of a an economic development package provided by Ottawa, as a bonus, they would likely be called corrupt and investigated.

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Richard
This has little enough to do with natives in canada and everything to do with the indulgent contracts awarded to private consultants to do work that could have been done better and faster by a team for half the cost.

The fact people are all: how dare a native bilk taxpayers like a white consultant is a bit myopic though and suggests people are viewing the issue through native tinted goggles.
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concerned
What I'd like to know is did he have a clause in his contract or did he take the $ w/o approval? Did he coerce the First Nation in any way? Did he cut his own cheque so to speak? What I don't agree with is the comment above stating that they have a right to know where their "taxpayers" money went to...who are you to say how a First Nation, or even an individual for that matter, can spend their money through any financial transaction? I don't have any right to tell anyone how they are to spend money through their business, why should you "Huh?"
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Mac
In other words, if you criticize an aboriginal person like Chief G, then you might just be a racist.

Overall, a ridiculous piece of editorial from, well, I would think a left-wing, 3rd yr undergrad who just took a course on aboriginal issues in Canada.
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Terry
I am a Canadian male,over 21 and English specking, therefore I have NO rights.
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Bob
I speak with many people over the course of my work week, it's a field where is a lot of water-cooler talk by its nature. Politics is always a top of conversation. I haven't heard a single mention of this story although it has received significant mainstream media attention. I believe most people are unmoved by the manufactured story by the Harper regime. This deviant regime is always looking for a scapegoat, someone to attack. Natives, veterans. It makes no difference. The Harper regime is the most scandal stained regime in history, with unprecedented billions blown on self serving largesse. Fake lakes, fake jets, fake ads, fake offices and fake citizenship ceremonies on Harper's state broadcaster, dying SUN "tv". The Harper regime hates transparency, it is the most secretive regime to ever have been allegedly elected. Pierre Poutine take note - Canadians are watching you and your boy Harper and nothing is going to distract us.
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sinbel
The Canadian taxpayer is the most ignored group and is used by every level of Gov't to fund and promote all the special interest people's of Canada. We as a people see our vast resources exported to other countries and pay the world price when the finished product comes back. We pay huge prices to fill up our cars and vehicles, while literally awash in oil. Most Gov't revenues that come from income taxes, consumption taxes, and provincial taxes and then fund the Aboriginal industry to the tune of billions annually. So, it comes as no surprise that the taxpayers ( natives included ) don't muster up a tear for the content of Fearon's article. The people that should be noticed the most are those long suffering, silent majority taxpayers. Enough is enough and that ain't racist.
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Nishe1000
Really?? ROFL!! Your government takes 3.5 Billion that isn't accounted for. Doesn't even ask what you the sheep think and puts through Bills that affects everyone in this country. Doesn't respond to his constituents, an d yet that's o.k.....one damn Indian makes more than you think and OMG!! Indians are draining the system!!! You guys are hilarious!!! Says the Indian that has ALWAYS PAID INCOME TAX!!!
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reg
don't know all particulars of case, but usually, if someone generates business, they are entitled to a finder's fee, or a commission.

question is, was his compensation pegged to how much business he would generate? was it known in advance, say, like a fixed commission?

average earners always resent what the top ten percent earn? the truth is, there are people that are exceptional and do exceptional things, and they should be compensated accordingly. it remains to be seen if this chief qualifies, but ... if he truly had the job of improving the local economy, and his compensation was pegged to the amount he was able to generate, then there should be no problem with his compensation.
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Just Dave...
My question is the economic development he created... was it a: on the reserve, b: managed and worked by natives and c: not owned by a third party conglomerate from outside the reserve. $80K is a fair wage for ED, but if any of the above statements is false then by this article, he should be paying taxes on the 880K ( not his measly salary...and yes look at...Attiwapistak...she gets 73,000? for being mayor...so on that side...cool). I worked for 5 years on a reserve ( I am not native), and they are a cool people, but there are those, even here, that take advantage of their positions. But one or two doesn't mean all. Most are great people. as for the racist card, we are all one race...the human race!
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John
"The devastating effects of residential schools continue today, likely laying the foundation for many of the challenges that First Nations disproportionately face, including incarceration, violence, and substance abuse."

Except you forgot to include the fact that only a small percentage of natives ever attended a residential school, and a smaller number suffered any abuse. The percentage of natives alive today that attended a residential school is in the low single digits. So really, playing the residential school card is a bit disingenuous.
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Anonymous Troll
Funny how people jump to all sorts of (racist) conclusions when they dont know facts, or as the author writes, "the context".

Generally, Indian Bands under the imposed Indian Act have 2 streams of revenue:
1. Annual Contribution Agreements from Federal Government to provide services on-reserve (or as you all like to whimper about, "my tax dollars!"); and
2. Economic Development, whether through partnerships with industry, revenue sharing agreements or leasing out/selling their reserve lands.

In this case, the $800k was generated from a sale of lands to the Province for $8 million. The 10% commission he recieved was from a contract that he didnt even negotiate. He took the contract over when the previous economic development officer left his position.

So, if you want to be mad at anyone, complain to the Province for buying reserve lands with your tax dollars. This chief is only guilty of finding other streams of revenue to supplement the inadequate funding they recieve annualy from "your tax dollars." Otherwise you are just misinformed, ignorant and/or racist.

Sure there are reports that his community members are concerned or upset that he made that much money that could have potentially went elsewhere. But that really has nothing to do with you Average Joe Canadian. That's for them as a community to work out, which they will... as communites always have... since long before your relatives arrived here... and imposed this governance sturcture on them.
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