First Nation activist shines a light in places prime ministers couldn’t illuminate
Charmaine Stick accomplished something Stephen Harper couldn’t get done and Justin Trudeau didn’t even try to do: she disclosed her chief’s salary.
Stick takes care of six children on the Onion Lake Cree Nation. In her free time (if there is such a thing in such a busy home), she’s spent years struggling to bring accountability and transparency to her band located on the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta.
It started with a 13-day hunger strike in 2014. She could not accept the poverty in her community despite Chief Wallace Fox’s refusal to show what’s happening to the band’s money. As a survivor of abuse, she could not accept the fact that her community would again be lead by a chief lacking in respect for women (he later pleaded guilty to assault). So, she sat at the reserve’s main intersection and refused food.
“He said in Cree: ‘Go ahead and sit there and starve to death,’” says Stick as she remembers her conversation with Fox during her hunger strike. “‘You won’t get anywhere with this.’”
Fox was wrong. Stick partnered with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to launch a court application demanding that Fox comply with The First Nations Financial Transparency Act by publishing annual financial statements as well as the salaries and expenses paid to chief and council. All but seven of nearly 600 First Nations have published financial documents, but Fox refused and took the Harper government to court to block the legislation. The Trudeau government stopped enforcing the law in 2015.
The documents show Fox made $123,000 in 2015. The next year, Fox gave himself a raise and took home $150,692. Stick says grassroots bandmembers had no idea.
It’s important to put those numbers in context. The average salary for a chief in Canada is $58,856. The average income for members of the Onion Lake Cree Nation is $17,528.
The documents also show $1.4-million investments in technology companies were written off. For years, Stick has been asking questions about Fox’s controversial decision to invest in a New Zealand tech company. It seems the money is gone.
Now, with another election coming this spring, grassroots members of Onion Lake Cree Nation will be able to make a much more informed choice when they mark their ballots.
Stick’s victories impose an important choice for Ottawa.
When the Trudeau government took power, it acquiesced to Fox and a handful of other chiefs who objected to The First Nations Financial Transparency Act by halting enforcement. The government said it would engage First Nations leaders to develop replacement legislation. After two years, there’s no new legislation.
In the meantime, the government continually insists there’s no problem. It says bands across the country provide transparency. And while that’s true in many cases, the government has no answer for obvious cases of lacking transparency, even when asked directly about Stick’s case.
That status quo has been shakily convenient for both Fox and the feds. Non-enforcement meant Fox needn’t comply. And the feds could safely ride the fence rather than paying the political price for either gutting the legislation or reinstating enforcement.
Stick has made that status quo impossible. She forced Fox to provide financial transparency and other First Nations activists can use that precedence. Even if Ottawa continues to look the other way, Stick and others will get the books opened.
Which leaves Ottawa with a choice: stand with Stick and other courageous activists by strengthening transparency and enforcing the law; or, stay with Fox and a few other unaccountable chiefs by introducing watered down legislation or ignoring the issue completely.