COLUMN: The value of First Nations treaties

High salaries of leaders reveals Semiahmoo First Nation members deserve more.

The recent revelation of the salaries, income and expenses of the Semiahmoo First Nation prompted a lot of reaction from right across the country – and from a few members of the band, which is based in South Surrey.

Although the Semiahmoo First Nation has only 93 members, chief Willard Cook collected a salary of $267,729, including $420 for expenses. Coun. Joanne Charles collected $200,756 in salary and expenses, while councillor Roxanne Charles collected much less, just $32,198.

Revelations of the payments comes as a result of the First Nations Financial Responsibility Act, passed by the Conservative government. The stated purpose is to let band members and taxpayers be fully aware of the financial position of First Nations across Canada.

This has been a worthwhile piece of legislation. For one, it has shown the vast majority of band council members across Canada are acting responsibly, in terms of the salary and expenses they are being paid. Only a few have been collecting outlandish amounts.

Another benefit is to show taxpayers just how much goes towards First Nations from various levels of government. Indeed, one of the puzzling things about the Semiahmoo declaration is how much the band received from the provincial government.

Most payments to First Nations usually come from the federal government, not the province. The federal government has constitutional responsibility for First Nations. Yet the Semiahmoo filing shows that $3,329,000 came from provincial taxpayers, while just $171,673 came from federal taxpayers.

The large amounts that go to bands from various governments make clear the importance of band economic development, and the value of treaties. The Tsawwassen First Nation in Delta has signed a treaty, and now has much more power over its affairs. It is engaged in numerous economic activities, including construction of a large shopping centre near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.

Other B.C. bands, such as the Osoyoos and Westbank First Nations, have also been involved in significant economic activity, and are thus far less dependent on governments. This is to everyone’s benefit.

The Semiahmoo band is engaged in some economic activity, notably leasing out various properties that are located on its land. It also collects parking revenue from a large parking lot adjacent to the beach. Its filing shows $858,142 in partnership revenue, including economic partnerships.

There is potential for a great deal more revenue from economic development. The band’s lands are located adjacent to the border and White Rock, and some real estate development, for example, could prove beneficial to the members of the band – as long as it met with their approval.

There is a need for basic services on the band’s land. Band member Darren Dolan, who expressed concern about the level of Cook’s salary, said his own home has been condemned and has no water or sewer services. Considering most band members live within sight of some luxurious homes in White Rock and South Surrey, such conditions are unacceptable.

“We live in distress and Third World conditions, while they (leaders) have anything they want at their fingertips,” Dolan said.

There is no reason that additional economic development on the band’s land cannot be used as a much-needed lever to bring water and sewer services, and better housing for band members, to the Semiahmoo lands. Progress towards a treaty, which would grant much more autonomy to the band, would also be a good step.

The members of the band, who have long been good neighbours to South Surrey and White Rock residents, deserve no less.

 

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