The bulldozers aren’t just transforming a patch of stunted forest along Highway 104 in Antigonish County.
They will also reshape the balance sheet of the Paqtnkek First Nation.
The $8-million commercial development the community of 420 is building along the new highway interchange will include a gas bar, restaurant and commercial space for other businesses.
Beyond linking two sides of the community that were split by the highway a half century ago, it will also offer up revenue-generating opportunities for the band council.
Last year Paqtnkek generated $6,453,846 in revenue from operating its own fishing fleet, a small convenience store and gaming centre, which meant 40 per cent of the community’s total budget was self-generated.
P.J. Prosper, the chief of the community that posted a $2.2 million surplus last fiscal year and is on the way to do better in years to come, was paid (expenses included) $54,443.
At the other end of the spectrum is Chief Sidney Peters of the Glooscap First Nation — Peters was paid a salary of $127,155 and a further $20,151 in expenses for leading the community of 95 residents.
Peters declined a Chronicle Herald interview request.
While public discussion of First Nation governance and pay has often focused on isolated cases of curiously high remuneration in small communities, a Chronicle Herald examination of the audited financial statements of all 11 of Nova Scotia’s First Nations reveals a much more complex picture.
Beyond providing standard municipal services like garbage removal, water and sewer, many of the larger communities fund schools and clinics (a provincial responsibility in non-aboriginal towns) and operate business enterprises worth tens of millions of dollars.
In fact, Nova Scotia’s First Nations on average generate 53 per cent of their total budgets from their own business activities — double the Canadian average of 24 per cent.
The bands’ successes in developing their own business sector includes Eskasoni, the largest Mi’kmaw community with 3,867 resident members, that generated $6,662,708 or 11 per cent of its $59.6 million budget primarily through operating commercial fishing enterprises.
The Acadia First Nation (236 residents) generated $32,106,031 or 84 per cent of its $38 million budget through a variety of retail and gaming enterprises.
Acadia’s Chief Deborah Robinson was paid a total of $160,921 (including expenses and “other”) while Chief Leroy Denny of Eskasoni was paid $167,425.
While The Chronicle Herald sought comment from the chiefs of Membertou, Millbrook, Paqtnkek and Glooscap First Nations, none made themselves available for an interview.
“Though I can’t speak for their communities, their jobs are 24-7 jobs,” said Chief Lorraine Augustine of the Native Council of Nova Scotia, which represents off-community and non-status Mi’kmaw.
“From my perspective and what I do on a regular basis, as a chief not only do you deal with your own members, there’s also staffing, and political issues.”
The question of adequate pay for work done is complicated by the fact that there are no easy comparisons in our society to an organization like a First Nation.
Marguerite Cassin, a professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, breaks down pay scales into four groups: elected officials, civil servants, not-for-profit organizations and private industry executives.
But what if a chief’s responsibilities fit into multiple categories?
“In the public’s mind, pay for politicians is an entirely different matter than pay for civil service work,” said Cassin.
“In the public’s mind, pay for senior public services is entirely different than for corporate executives. Similarly the public knows nearly nothing about how and why the presidents of universities and hospitals are paid and if they did know they wouldn’t approve.”
So Acadia University, with an enrolment of 3,765 students, signed a contract last July to pay president Peter Rickets $310,000 annually in salary plus benefits and expenses. According to its audited financial statements, the school in Wolfville had total revenues of just over $98 million in the 2017 fiscal year.
The mayor of nearby Windsor, Anna Allen, which has a population of about 3,600 residents, will be paid $28,268 this year, plus expenses.
Chief Terrance Paul was paid a salary of $84,997 for heading the Membertou First Nation in 2017, charged $46,626 in expenses to his community of 934 residents (plus another 574 off community members) and was paid a further $126,500 for his role as chief executive officer of the Membertou Development Corporation.
However, under his leadership the community has become an economic driver of Cape Breton Regional Municipality and generated nearly $48 million of its own revenue in 2017 through its many businesses which include hotels, a casino and fishing enterprises.
A Nova Scotia MLA, meanwhile, is paid $89,235 annually, plus expenses.
So what’s fair pay for a chief?
The average of Nova Scotia’s 11 first nations was $75,000 in 2017 with expenses of $13,868.
“These are true executive positions,” said Tom Flanagan, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, who has published statistical analyses of well-being, governance, business development and council pay on Canada’s First Nations.
“For a chief of a fair-sized band to make $130,000 in a broad Canadian context is certainly not outrageous. … There is a lot of variation in pay however between communities and regions. … There’s nobody to set any standard for pay. There are 618 First Nations and no federal framework for compensation.”
Atlantic Canada’s First Nations pay their chiefs above the Canadian average.
However, from another perspective, First Nations members have a better standard of living in Atlantic Canada than everywhere else in the country other than the Yukon.
On Statistics Canada’s well-being index, a basket of data including education, income, housing and labour force participation, our First Nations residents get a score of 65 out of a hundred.
Due in part to non-Aboriginal Atlantic Canadians having the lowest national score (75) the margin is also narrowest here.
“(First Nation governance and well-being) are so often portrayed in the media as an unrelieved dark picture,” said Flanagan.
“Well, it’s not. There are many First Nations that are doing a lot for themselves and surrounding area.
“The big thing found in my research is that success stories all come back to the initiative of the First Nations themselves. None of these success stories are due to government transfers or initiatives. They are due to local people determining what will work in their circumstances then pursuing those opportunities strategically.”