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.