FNTC Commissioner Céline Auclair is the founder of the First Peoples Innovation Center, a non‑profit Aboriginal organization that assists the development of social innovation for the First People communities in Quebec. Commissioner Auclair’s extensive background includes working, both domestically and abroad, in international development, micro-finance development, First Nation taxation, property rights, human rights issues and good governance practices.

Clearing the Path recently had the opportunity to sit down with Commissioner Auclair to talk about her experience and involvement with the FNTC.

Prior to becoming an FNTC Commissioner, you were involved with FNTC’s predecessor, the Indian Taxation Advisory Board (ITAB). Can you tell us about that experience?
After I completed my PhD, I began working for ITAB on the very first property taxation framework under section 83 of the Indian Act. A few months later, I started working with the team to create the First Nations Gazette. When I first joined ITAB, the Gazette was a concept. ITAB was in the trial stage of developing the legal framework for First Nations laws to provide them with the legal stature that other laws in Canada had. It was rewarding to see that First Nations leaders were recognizing the importance of developing the legal structure for First Nations laws as part of their governance architecture. Since then, the First Nations Gazette has grown substantially and the economic stature of First Nations has changed drastically.
At that time, the Chief Commissioner was working hard to convince First Nations that taxation was a building block of First Nation economies. While I was working toward my PhD in Geneva, we were taught that to become a recognized government, three things were needed: to have people recognize the government’s authority, to have territory from which to base that authority, and to have the capacity to exercise jurisdiction. While it was theoretical at the time, we’ve since seen what taxation does for a government. It provides independence and is a tool to build an economy. It is a tool for the future. Taxation provides stable, predictable revenue that allows for multi-year planning. Understanding the power of taxation was the biggest lesson I learned at ITAB.

Throughout your career, you’ve had extensive international experience. How does that experience relate to your work as a Commissioner?
The Forum of Federations, an international governance organization promoting intergovernmental learning on governance challenges in multi-level democracies that I co-founded. During my 10 years there, I learned about the power of a federal state. There are only 26 countries around the world that have a federal charter, which allows different components of the country to have their own jurisdiction or constitutional power. In some countries, there is a two-level constitutional competency, while others have three orders of governments and governmental powers, such as monetary or foreign policy, which can be exclusive or shared between the levels of government. Many countries are innovating the way powers are shared and that can really sophisticate the way a country can govern.
I’ve applied what I’ve learned to my work with the FNTC by bringing that knowledge to the Commission so we can fully understand the advantage of a federal constitution and the flexibility it can bring for governments to exercise their jurisdiction independent from other governments. Canada’s constitution, as it is written, provides First Nations with governmental powers that are exclusive from other governments in the country. Taxation is a good example of that constitutional power. For decades, First Nations were not exercising powers on their lands, resulting in other governments doing so, which is still the case in some provinces today. By First Nations exercising their jurisdiction, they are also asserting their power under the constitution.

You also serve on FNTC’s International Relations Committee. Can you tell us more about the work that committee does?
We formed an international advisory committee with First Nations from other countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, that have dealt with the same taxation issues we face in Canada to learn from them. We met a number of times to discuss challenges and listen to experts from those countries discuss the successes and difficulties they encountered with taxation. Those meetings were conducted over a three-year period and were incredibly useful to us.

We also consulting with emerging First Nation governments in Brazil and Mexico and found those meetings to be very interesting as well. To see new leaders with fresh eyes looking at yet the same problem faced by First Nations around the world was a valuable learning experience.

Our committee also had a good working session with world-renowned economist Hernando De Soto from the Institute of Liberty and Democracy. Mr. De Soto is a Peruvian economist who wrote a book called “The Mystery of Capital”, which detailed how lack of legal title to property hinders economic development. In our session, we discussed how formalizing property rights contributed to economic growth in Peru of 280 per cent and how other countries that have formalized property rights have experienced similar economic success. This demonstrated the power of property rights and underscored the important work the FNTC is doing on the First Nations Property Ownership Initiative here in Canada. While jurisdiction and taxation are the building blocks for First Nation economies, property rights are also at the heart of the economy. If you can’t own your own land, it can be very difficult to plan for the future. Property ownership can be controversial but the FNTC has worked hard to learn from the successes and difficulties encountered by First Nations in other countries to create a viable property ownership system for First Nations in Canada.

I pay tribute to the Chief Commissioner for being a visionary and leading the work of the FNTC. I encourage more First Nations to work with us to develop independent, stable governments that are able to assert their constitutional competencies. It is uplifting to see the dynamism of First Nations around the country and I am very optimistic for the future.