UPDATE (Nov 24, 2010): Hours after originally penning this piece, I realized I needed to make my point better and more fairly about how the data has been misrepresented, and by whom. Accordingly, I wish to clarify here that INAC did in fact track and present the data for travel, honoraria and salary separately (though it still isn’t always clear how these each break down) — it was only the CTF who re-presented them as a lump-sum figure, making it seem like the “salaries” were larger than they were. Go to the original CTF post and click on one of the data sets to see what I mean.)

The day after the Canadian Taxpayers Federation published what it claims is 2008 “chief and council pay data” for reserve politicians across Canada, reaction has come fast, hard — and, so far, a bit vague.

Today, Chief Shirley Clarke of the Glooscap First Nation in Nova Scotia told the media in a statement that she feels “the [CTF] document provides an inaccurate perception that we are unjustly overpaid for the limitless work we do on behalf of our community.”

According to The Vancouver Sun, it very much appears that Glooscap is the First Nation where “the highest [reported] salary [sic]— $978,468 — went to an unnamed band councillor at a small Mi’kmaq reserve in Atlantic Canada.” It is thought the anonymous politician represents this tiny community of 300 people (with just 87 of them living on-reserve) because, as the CBC noted, the CTF “report only identified reserves by population and federal funding,” and in Glooscap’s case, the figures “exactly matched.”

But Chief Clarke would neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of this near-$1 million figure to reporters; she would only say the data as presented are misleading because they do not include a breakdown of what the compensation covers, reports the CBC. The Canadian Press also quotes the Chief as saying “Our responsibilities are endless,” and do not follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule.

Meanwhile, Chief Lawrence Paul of Millbrook First Nation (also in Nova Scotia) told the Toronto Star, “he has no problem with making salary information public if the same standard applies to all governments and corporations.”

Included within that similar standard should be the method of calculation and presentation. One point that has been made elsewhere on MEDIA INDIGENA, and not altogether unfairly, is that figures provided to promoted by CTF to the media and the public by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada “include salaries, honorariums and travel per diems,” according to the Canadian Press.

To illustrate the significance of this point, look at what would happen if we lumped together these costs for federal Members of Parliament (MPs) in determining their remuneration.

Start with “travel per diems.” According to numbers crunched by Postmedia News in May, the top 10 travelling Members of Parliament incurred expenses anywhere from $29,927 to $60,483 in 2008-2009.

The base salary of a MP in Canada is $155,400 a year. If you’re that top traveller in 2008-2009, your total “salary” — using the all-in methodology of INAC and the CTF — would be $215,883. Technically speaking, that’s kinda misleading and unduly inflates the MP’s ‘earnings’ by 39%.

And as for those honoraria attributed to First Nation chiefs and councillors? This also potentially matters to our comparisons between Native and non-Native political ‘salary’ levels.

You see, every MP in Canada receives what’s known as a “Member’s Office Budget” (MOB), to the tune of over a quarter-million dollars a year.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s considered an eligible expense under every Member of Parliament’s annual budget of $280,500:

  • employee salaries
  • service contracts
  • constituency office operating expenses (e.g., utilities, telephone service for secondary constituency offices, additional cellular/BlackBerry services in excess of goods and services provided by the House incl. airtime and data plans, furniture and computer equipment)
  • Miscellaneous Expenditures Account, i.e., certain hospitality expenses and gifts given for reasons of official protocol (max. 3% of MOB)
  • travel
  • accommodation
  • meal and incidental expenses (by Member and his/her employees, designated travellers and/or dependant(s) within the Member’s constituency or his/her province or territory)
  • certain transportation expenses incurred by the Member within the National Capital Region, as well as accommodation, meal and incidental expenses incurred by employees on authorized parliamentary business trips within Canada
  • advertising to constituents concerning: Member office location and contact information; assistance and services they provide; meeting announcements related to constituency functions; congratulatory messages or greetings to constituents; opinions or statements in support of their parliamentary functions (max. 10% of MOB)

My question is, how many of the expenses of the kind listed above may or may not be included under what INAC and the CTF put forth as the “salary” of First Nation politicians in its publicity?

Most of them? One or two of them? We don’t know. And I think if we’re gonna rake these politicians over the coals, we should know exactly what we’re talking about first.

Does that make it likely that the unidentified band councillor from Atlantic Canada justifiably racked up almost a million dollars in combined expenses and salary in one year? Call me skeptical on that one. But I do suspect that if MPs were reported to have ‘earned’ $435,000 a year ($155,400 + $280,500) each, we would likely see them fall prey to the “inaccurate, negative” publicity currently faced by some on-reserve politicians.