Debunking the Fat Cat Chiefs Story

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Last week’s news bristled with the indignant discovery by the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation that some First Nations politicians are paid more than the Prime Minister. Their press release (which, with exemplary academic rigour, used the phrase “jaw-dropping” twice) excited considerable furor among journalists from the Sun to CBC. One only regrets that Quebecor’s new network isn’t up and running, and that we are cheated of the spectacle of Kathy Shaidle “humorously” demanding distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to address the problem.

I have to confess I find it hard to understand why a politician on a small reserve in the Maritimes is receiving a salary of almost a million dollars. But then, I also find it hard to stomach that a Canadian MP gets a lifetime pension, that the CEOs of some major American charities earn over two million dollars, or that the current Prime Minister is paid at all $317,00.00.

Having said that, let’s look at the CTF’s shocked announcement through a couple of different lenses.

UPDATE: An excellent post on the same issue here - thanks, Beijing!

UPPERDATE: Another thought provoking take from commenter Dirk, here.

Let’s start with the source. CTF is a lobby group founded in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They identify themselves as non-partisan, but their fiscal agenda is pure Reform Party: cut spending, cut taxes, cut federal programs, stop whining about carbon taxes or cap-and-trade - the usual mantra.

The CTF’s Aboriginal Agenda is simple, and again, straight Reform: stop paying Indians all that money of ours. So read these “findings” with the awareness that this release is a political document intended to inflame, not an objective study or analysis. Credible studies do not prime the reader with terms like “shocking”, “jaw-dropping”, “exorbitant”, and so on. I may reach that conclusion myself - but when a researcher frames their findings that way, I know I’m reading propaganda. CTF conducted their research to support a political conclusion, not to reach one.

To begin with, let’s forget the carefully designed frame set out by CTF to make this story as horrifying as they can. To compare the salary of a reserve politician to that of the Prime Minister is as irrelevant as comparing it the president of Mexico, the CEO of GM, an NHL rookie, or the head of United Way Canada. First Nations governance systems are not part of the Canadian governance structure: band councils are not another layer of Canadian government. The comparison is a cheap and irrelevant headline grabber, nothing more.

It’s also a bit of a lie: the Prime Minister, like every MP, receives a lifelong pension and other perks not factored into the CTF “study”. They also provide the Aboriginal politician salaries in “taxable equivalents” rather than actual dollars. That’s juicier: it inflates the numbers and makes for a better story.

There is no description of the “study’s” methodology, and some essential facts are curiously absent. The “study” is based on “partial information”, with no explanation of what data has been omitted or cherry-picked. There’s no indication of how many reserves they’ve included in their “study”. Key findings are fuzzified with weasel words like “approximately”. In other words, this has all the rigor and verifiability of an Ezra Levant editorial.

But let’s leave all that aside, disregard the irrelevant and misleading comparison to Premiers and Prime Ministers, and look at the one key assertion: that 634 Aboriginal politicians earned salaries greater than $100,000 (tax adjusted) per year. (That “tax adjusted” tag means the salary may actually be in the $75,000 dollar range.)

The phrase “Aboriginal Politicians” refers to Chiefs and elected council members. There are roughly 615 bands in Canada, not counting governance aggregates like Tribal Councils. Some are tiny and broke; some are huge, manage multi-million dollar businesses and participate in international consortia. The CTF study, of course, doesn’t link salaries to band revenues; the alert reader, however, will note that, unsurprisingly, the provinces with the biggest reserves have a larger number of Aboriginal politicians with higher pay. Duh.

Do the math. The bottom line is that slightly over 1 chief or councilor per band MAY earn a salary of more than $75,000. Is that a little less shocking?

I could continue debunking this “study”, and I invited you to do the same. But it’s not dishonesty of the analysis or the weakness of methodology that are most disturbing. It’s the Reformist message, relentlessly driven home again and again: these fat cat Injuns are living high off the hog on your tax dollars. The attitude is best summarized by a comment on the CTF site:

It’s time to realize that no Canadian group should be treated better than others. Things happened hundreds of years ago. Get over it, nobody alive now was there, it’s 2010. The government needs to stop kissing Aboriginal ass for the past.

Sigh. Here we go again. Once more, for the zillionth time:

INAC transfer payments to First Nations aren’t guilt money or welfare. It’s not atonement for past wrongdoings, or a charitable donation. It’s payment on a contract.

First Nations hold legal title to large areas of Canada. Canada acknowledges that, as does international law: it’s simply not in question. First Nations, over the years, have negotiated treaties and land claims agreements with Canada that give Canada the right to access, develop, mine, build highways across, and otherwise use Aboriginal land, in return for specific, negotiated benefits that may include funding, health care, education, royalties on resource development, and other forms of payment. It’s a VERY GOOD DEAL for Canada. And it’s not welfare, or a grant: it’s payment for the right to access and use the land under a perpetual and binding agreement.

Assimilationists like Tom Flanagan, the Frontier Centre and CTF hate that. They’d love to see Aboriginal title dissolved, treaties abandoned, and Land Claims reneged on, and Tom Flanagan has called for precisely that. All for the good of Aboriginal people, of course. That’s the only solution to native poverty and social distress. Give up your land, your languages, your sense of self, move into our cities, and join us. Oh, and, leave the land, thanks very much.

The tender concern evinced for the poorest residents of the poorest reserves by the CTF in their indignant review of salaries is deeply moving. It would be even more moving if they actually seemed to give a shit about federal failures to meet actual commitments and obligations in the areas of health care, education, housing and infrastructure - measures that actually alleviate poverty and make communities sustainable in the long term. Curiously, that side of the analysis is inevitably missing.

Now, if I were an Aboriginal person living in poverty on a reserve, I would want to know what my the Chief and Councilors were being paid. I’d lobby for disclosure of that information. And if I thought their salaries were exorbitant, I’d try to mobilize my community for change. And that is, in fact, beginning to happen: and the trend will continue.

But make no mistake: the CTF, and the current Government of Canada, are only interested in promoting openness and disclosure to the extent that it further their own agenda. To believe Harper’s Conservatives actually value transparency as a principle of governance is to believe that Kim Jong-il believes in democracy, or that the Walrus was chiefly concerned with the well-being of the Oysters.

I suggest that corruption and exploitation among some band councils is real, and a real problem, as it is in some municipal, provincial and federal governments, some corners of the Catholic Church, some corporations, and some parts of virtually every human institution that provides opportunities to the greedy. I believe in supporting First Nations members and communities fighting to make their own councils more open and accountable. And I take the “concern” of Reformers, whether masquerading as research or expressions of warm concern, as propaganda for assimilation.

Crossposted from Stageleft

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on November 28, 2010 12:32 PM.

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