Sumas First Nation’s tax administrator Wendy Ham attended Tulo from 2014- 2015 and will be graduating with her certificate in First Nation Tax Administration this year. Prior to entering the field of tax administration, Wendy worked in post-secondary education and in the not- for-profit (NFP) sector and received her CGA designation in 2001. After spending seven years in NFP, Wendy was hired as a consultant at Sumas First Nation (SFN) in April 2013, eventually assuming the permanent Finance Manager position in January 2014. Wendy has also recently applied to receive her certified Aboriginal Finance Manager designation.
Recently Clearing the Path had the opportunity to sit down with Wendy to learn more about her experience as a tax administrator and as a student at the Tulo Centre of Indigenous Economics.
How did you get into tax administration?
When I started working on Sumas First Nation’s audit, I began touching on the tax side of things and was trying to understand the complexity of taxation. Prior to my involvement, tax administration was being done off the side of someone’s desk, so I spearheaded the process of reviewing SFN’s tax laws and identified areas to work on so the laws better reflected the needs of the community and connected with FNTC for support. From there, I was contacted by Tulo to see if I was interested in doing the program and once I took a look at the curriculum, I realized it was a great opportunity to expand my limited knowledge and understanding.
What did you enjoy most about your program?
I loved meeting tax administrators from other nations. There’s nothing better than the opportunity to brainstorm and find out what others are doing, to get to the issues and share concerns. It was a really great experience.
I enjoyed that it was practical knowledge you could take and put to work right away. It also gave me the opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive – that was huge. In tax administration, the key to having a good program is being proactive with taxpayers. Taxation weaves into so many areas of First Nation administration, including land and resource management and working on infrastructure. It really is a cornerstone of sound First Nation governance.
What did you learn from your fellow tax administrator graduates?
I learned leaseholders across the nation are the same and we all have similar issues and we can really learn from each other. I also learned that property tax is more complicated than one might initially think and having a group to reach out to and work with is truly great.
Do you keep in touch with the other graduates from your cohort?
I do. I run into them at conferences. We all have each other’s contact information so it’s easy to connect and discuss issues we encounter. One of my cohort members is also in finance and tax administration so we try to keep in touch.
Through all the material covered during your program, what stood out the most?
One of the biggest things is the complexity, there is so much more to think about than just collecting taxes. There’s the potential of development cost charges, service taxes and other ways to raise capital to make your First Nation better. It’s not just about collecting tax dollars, it’s about using those dollars in the best way possible for your First Nation. It really impacted how I thought about how we deal with property tax and made me change the way we administer our property tax system.
How has the successful completion of the program impacted your work at SFN?
It’s definitely a lot more work initially but again that ties into being proactive. It’s a matter of meeting early on with potential taxpayers or leaseholders to build those relationships so they know what they are getting into and helping them understand the process. It is so important to have good long term relations with leaseholders. It may be a lot more work up front, but it saves so much time and energy in the long run because the tax appeal process is long, stressful and expensive. By taking a proactive approach and focusing on good taxpayer relations, First Nations can avoid many of those problems.
What would you say to a fellow tax administrator who has not yet had the opportunity to attend Tulo?
I would definitely tell them it’s the best year and half that they could spend to get good, sound knowledge of what it means to be a tax administrator because I think there’s a lot of people who have no idea how deep that role is in the organization and how beneficial the education is.
The program Tulo offers is really great and is set up in a good way that works with the busy schedule of tax administrators. This education is a cornerstone that we can all use so we don’t waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. Tax administrators can go into this and gain so much in such a short time. Doing the program does nothing but bring credibility to our role within our First Nations.