August 1, 2014 / 5:35 PM / in 3 years

Backlash as Canada reveals big salaries for aboriginal leaders

TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian aboriginal leader was paid nearly C$1 million last year by his community, one of many large compensation packages revealed this week under a new law that has sparked concern about potential corruption among Canada’s often-impoverished natives.

Chief Ron Giesbrecht, who leads a community of some 82 people on Canada’s west coast, was paid C$914,219 ($839,800) in remuneration and C$16,574 in expenses last year, according to a salary disclosure released by the federal government.

The giant pay package is the largest so far in a string of outsized incomes for First Nations chiefs from coast to coast revealed under a new law designed to boost transparency of aboriginal communities, which get the bulk of their income from the Canadian government.

“The reported salary of the Chief is very troubling and his community members deserve an explanation,” Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, said in an email.

“Our government expects First Nation band councils to use taxpayer dollars responsibly and for the benefit of all community members which is why we brought in the First Nation Transparency Act,” she wrote.

As of July 29, Canada’s more than 600 aboriginal communities are required to publish their audited financial statements and pay packages for chiefs and councillors on the Internet, a process that is already grabbing headlines and triggering outrage.

Canada spends around C$11 billion a year on its aboriginal population, but living conditions for many are poor, and some aboriginal reserves have high rates of poverty, addiction, joblessness and suicide.

Giesbrecht, who was elected to a three-year term that began in 2012 and took on an additional role as economic development officer in September 2013, could not immediately be reached for comment.

A statement from the community suggested the high pay will not continue.

“We understand that seeing such a large number for the Chief’s salary is disconcerting, but for the sake of clarity, we wish to break it down for you,” the Kwikwetlem First Nation said in the statement.

It said C$800,000 of the remuneration was a 10 percent bonus linked to an economic development project but noted that the bonus was removed from a new contract for the chief that was negotiated in April.

The Kwikwetlem First Nation, named for the sockeye salmon which run in a nearby river, has two reserves on the outskirts of Vancouver. Thirty-five people live on its reserves, and the rest live elsewhere in Canada, according to the government.

“He’s probably the highest-paid politician in the country - it was a pretty surprising revelation,” said Canadian Taxpayer Federation spokesman Colin Craig, noting that, by comparison, Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes about C$327,000.

“We’re talking about public funds,” he said. “The government provides billions of dollars a year in transfers to aboriginal communities, and you expect those funds to be helping the people on reserves rather than be siphoned off the top by chiefs and councillors.”

($1 = 1.0886 Canadian Dollars)

(This version of the story was corrected to change compensation to nearly C$1 million in the first paragraph.)

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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