APTN National News
People across Nova Scotia are furious after finding out chiefs make hundreds of dollars in per diems for doing as little as sitting on a conference call for the Mi’kmaw Family Services Agency.
“This double dipping has to stop,” said Daniel Toney, a member of Annapolis First Nation in Nova Scotia.
Toney was part of a protest there earlier this month.
People are upset over the amount of money his chief, Janette Peterson takes home.
The chief gets her salary but also pulls in travel costs and per diems that double her salary. Peterson wasn’t available for comment.
“They’re already being paid to represent the department of Indian Affairs in whatever they’re doing,” said Elizabeth Marshall, member of Eskasoni, Cape Breton. “And I don’t know what they’re doing in all these meetings. What are they accomplishing?”
Marshall said she doesn’t see any benefit play out on the ground in her home community. What she sees is poverty, addiction, domestic abuse and high numbers of kids being taken into care.
“The chiefs are sapping many of these organizations,” said Marshall. “Are they meeting just for the honorariums or there to help our people?”
One of those organizations is Mi’kmaw Family & Children’s Services (MFCS); a cash-strapped agency tasked with child welfare on reserves in Nova Scotia.
Ottawa may be to blame for the agency’s chronic deficit, but a 2013 review of the agency points out “the cost of board expenses has risen 171 per cent in five years” to the tune of over $100,000 a year.
In 2011, the agency couldn’t afford full board meetings. The review by Cooney Consulting points out “the number of meetings decreased and the costs increased.”
It’s the chiefs who make up the board. And according to the report, decided a few years ago to raise their per diems to $500 “regardless of time commitment.”
A per diem is paid out even for a phone call.
The report recommends putting community members on the board.
Brenda Cope, an administrator with MFCS, said the chiefs offer an advantage.
“What we find is that the chiefs are more powerful than community members,” said Cope. “So when we’re talking to AANDC, it’s better to have the chiefs involved.”
Cope said the board costs are still running at over $100,000 because the chiefs are “meeting more often and because they’re doing more.”
But she added, the chiefs are looking at making changes to “bring it more into line with other organizations.”
Some effort to curb the cost of bringing chiefs to the table has been made said Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall.
“Sometimes we have three meetings and people would get paid the full three meetings, the whole thing. Now we changed that part,” said Marshall. “If you’re already there you don’t have to travel, right? You get the honorarium. And some places are dropping theirs to $300 a day.”
Marshall said he racks up over 100,000 km a year on his personal car traveling to all these meetings. It’s demanding work he said.
“It’s hard because you’re gone every week,” said Marshall. “This week alone, I’ll be here for two days. I was gone one day. Next week? I’m gone all week.”
And the chiefs have some big agenda items on their plates, whether it’s child welfare, governance or treaty rights.
“There are a lot of expectations placed upon chiefs in terms of sitting in and playing a role in various initiatives,” said Chief Paul Prosper.
Chiefs can be a powerful advocate for an agency. But that comes at a price. For the Mi’kmaq child welfare agency the $500 per diem is steep.
Prosper said it’s about striking a balance.
“There have been some initiatives that are undertaken to try to look into that and bring that cost down,” said Prosper. “Because you don’t want to saddle an agency with that kind of cost, the chiefs do recognize that.”
The chiefs are now looking at the question of how often they should meet and how much they should get paid.
Elizabeth Marshall said they already are.
“If you’re there to help the people, you don’t need the per diem. They’re already getting a salary, sometimes six figures. Even with Transparency Act,” said Elizabeth Marshall, “per diems don’t show up.”
And she said nobody wants to talk about the kickbacks for chiefs.
“Any type of whistle blowing, anybody who challenges the chiefs, they’re blacklisted,” she said.
Marshall is shocked by the dollar figure attached to per diems, that a two meeting can mean $1,000 for a chief.
“As a poor person, even the travel costs are outrageous,” said Marshall. “Without the per diems, I doubt the chiefs would even have any meetings.”
Daniel Toney said people don’t know what happens behind closed door meetings. Or how much money the chiefs pocket. He wants that to change.
“People aren’t aware of it,” said Toney. “Until we lift the veil, most will continue to follow blindly.”
The Cooney review of MFCS provides a rare glimpse.
It was never made public. But it has led to changes.
According to a written release from chair of the board, Chief Debra Robinson, “the agency has approved new by-laws, a human resources manual, board governance manual and revised job descriptions. All of these changes have led to clarity on the role of the board and staff with respect to governance and management.”
The Assembly of Nova Scotia Chiefs is looking at how to make its meetings to deal with the business of the nation more affordable but there’s no timeline on that.
And no drop yet in per diem rates.
Prosper wants to spend more time in the First Nation that elected him last year. Technology may be way to do it.
In the age of Skype and video conferencing, per diems and travel costs could be a thing of the past, though it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon.