Members of Semiahmoo First Nation are calling for an in-depth look at the band’s finances, after learning last week that their elected officials were together paid nearly a half-million dollars in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
“Realistically, we’d like to see an audit done and have the books completely open, because we’d like to see where the money has gone,” said Darren Dolan, one of 93 registered members of the band.
Dolan, 52, noting he has lived his whole life on the oceanfront reserve, was among many band members who say the remuneration disclosure – mandated by the First Nations Financial Transparency Act – provided the first insight into the band’s finances in more than a decade.
Posted last month, the statement indicates Chief Willard Cook was paid $267,729 (including $420 in expenses), councillor Joanne Charles received $200,756 ($13,618 in expenses) and councillor Roxanne Charles received $32,198 ($27,473 in expenses). Expenses reflect costs of transportation, accommodation, meals, hospitality and incidentals.
The information was disclosed nearly eight months after a November 2014 deadline to file. (The day after the deadline, Joanne Charles told Peace Arch News the band had “complied with what we needed to.”)
None of the elected officials could be reached for comment – phone messages were not returned and the band office on Beach Road was locked Friday afternoon – however, in a statement issued online Saturday, council members defended their salaries, noting the majority “comes from revenue that has been generated on behalf of the nation, and negotiations on some of these agreements are ongoing.”
“The Semiahmoo First Nations team, including Chief Willard Cook and Councillors Joanne Charles and Roxanne Charles, have been working hard to bring in the money needed to build a strong future for our Nation and our people. It is through this hard work that our surplus was increased from $1.2m to $4.3m from 2013-14.”
Semiahmoo’s financial statements for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014 reported $4,879,420 in revenue, including $3,329,000 in provincial government funding, $171,673 from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and $858,142 in partnership income.
Administration costs topped expenses, at $939,924, followed by land and resources ($224,807), economic initiative ($136,449) and community programs ($133,197).
Dolan and one other member contacted by PAN Friday, Darlene Clark, were critical, with Clark saying she was “utterly sickened” by the salary figures.
“As we sit with no housing, no programs, no septic, no gas, no city water, the chief sits on his high horse,” said Clark, a member who lives off-reserve.
“Who pays themselves that kind of money? It’s very disheartening to know this information.”
Clark noted she has a “knee-high” paper trail documenting her requests over the past decade to have the finances disclosed, and has never received a response.
Dolan – who is Clark’s cousin – said he, too, has made “hundreds” of requests for financial information since 1997, to no avail. Last week’s disclosure is “a good start,” he said, but far from enough.
Noting band leaders are supposed to take care of its members, Dolan said that hasn’t been the case. His own home – without sewer or water connections – is considered condemned, he said, and others are no better off.
He said he is being denied access to reserve property that his family owns, which is preventing its use for income purposes.
“We live in distress and Third World conditions, while they have anything they want at their fingertips,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is survive.”
The leaders’ online statement notes council members are “taking the time to talk to (members) now and over the coming days to make sure members are happy with how business is being handled,” and that efforts to improve the infrastructure will take place “over the next year or two.”
A letter to on-reserve members last weekend promised that any steps would be announced today.
It also noted media attention to the issue, and advised members that they were not obligated to answer questions.
“It is possible that journalists will show up on reserve, at the band office and at members’ houses to ask about our Nation and its business. We ask that all members are respectful and welcoming but please also understand that you do not have to answer their questions,” the letter states. “If you do not feel comfortable, please politely decline.”
Dolan said Tuesday he was not comforted by the letter.
“The biggest problem with this is now that they’ve been caught, they’re coming forward with this,” he said. “They’ve treated us like their little kids for years. Until this came out, we’ve never received a letter from them.”
According to a statement of salaries issued by the Assembly of First Nations last December, the “vast majority” of chiefs in Canada receive “fair and reasonable” pay, noting a median salary of just under $65,000; more than 88 per cent of chiefs had salaries of less than $100,000.
In addition, there are five chiefs who receive no salary at all, it states.
Semiahmoo’s consolidated financial statements for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014 were also posted last month, reporting $4,879,420 in revenue, including $3,329,000 in provincial government funding, $171,673 from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and $858,142 in partnership income.
Administration costs topped the list of expenses, at $939,924, followed by land and resources ($224,807), economic initiative ($136,449) and community programs ($133,197).
There are also some details of the band’s Se-mi-ah-mu Limited Partnership. Formed in 2002, its main business activities are described as “commercial property rentals and short-term parking lot rentals.”
According to the documents online, Se-mi-ah-mu Development Corporation is the general partner of the partnership, and the band is the limited partner. A net income of $858,227 was noted for the partnership for the year ending March 31, 2014.
Clark and Dolan both said more disclosure regarding the corporation’s finances is needed.
“I’d like to know where that fund goes. Nobody knows,” Clark said. “We haven’t had a band meeting in 10 years.”
The FNFTA became law in 2013, giving First Nations until last Nov. 26 to file financial details for 2013-’14.
The deadline to file 2014-’15 documents was July 29. As of Tuesday, documents from 253 bands, including the Semiahmoo, had not been posted.