Reasonable Doubt: Kwikwetlem chief story stokes racist tensions in Canada

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      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.

      Joseph Fearon is a civil litigation lawyer at Preszler Law Firm practising in the areas of personal injury and commercial litigation. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at

      A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Stevens Virgin or the lawyers of Stevens Virgin.




      Aug 8, 2014 at 11:24am

      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.


      Aug 8, 2014 at 11:42am

      The only thing stoking racism in Canada is First Nations getting preferential treatment under Canadian law. All Canadians should be equal.


      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:08pm

      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.

      Dave Turchynsky

      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:10pm

      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.

      Mick Patrick

      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:17pm

      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.

      I am Canadian Too

      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:19pm

      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?


      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:27pm

      Corruption is Corruption.


      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:36pm

      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.


      Aug 8, 2014 at 12:51pm

      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.


      Aug 8, 2014 at 1:07pm

      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.