Politics

Alberta chief and council award themselves nearly $700,000 in bonuses from band-owned company

An Alberta First Nation is mired in controversy after its chief
and council recently awarded themselves bonuses worth nearly
$700,000, apparently unbeknownst to the band membership until
after the cheques were cut.

The Bigstone Cree Nation band council’s decision to take a
payment from a band-owned company it controls points to
problems with the band’s governance and could be unlawful,
according to Sean Jones, a Vancouver lawyer practising
Indigenous law.

“If the band doesn’t have any bylaws that authorize this, there
certainly could be a problem here,” he said. “Certainly
there’s clearly a risk of conflict of interest.”

The bonus cheques were issued after a plan to nearly double a
severance allowance for the First Nation’s elected
representatives was abandoned this summer. Chief Gordon Auger
had put forward the plan less than a month before he announced
his own retirement ahead of the band’s upcoming election,
slated for the end of October. After the plan became public,
the increase was scrapped — and replaced with bonuses.

Travis Gladue-Beauregard, a band member who opposes the
decision, said the issue is part of a larger transparency
problem within the First Nation government. “It’s really sad,
because we have a lot of members that are living in poverty,”
he said.

The Bigstone Cree Nation, which includes the communities of
Wabasca, Chipewyan Lake and Calling Lake in northern Alberta,
has a population of roughly 8,000 and is governed by a chief
and 10 councillors from the three communities. Auger was first
elected in 1992 and has been chief, on and off, since then. In
July, he announced his intention to retire. “I truly feel that
I contributed to building up the nation from practically
nothing to where it is now due to the fact of devoting 24/7 of
my time as the chief of the nation,” he wrote in a letter.

One month earlier, according to documents obtained by the
National Post, Auger had sent a proposal to the council
regarding a new “retirement package” for chief and council,
referring to their “countless days and hours of family and
personal sacrifices.” The plan would have increased the
severance for the chief to $150,000 from $80,000 and to
$130,000 from $70,000 for councillors.

Coun. Josie Auger wrote a letter opposing the change. “The
history of increasing the transitional allowance without a
membership meeting and referendum breed irresponsibility and a
lack of accountability to membership,” she wrote. The letter
was published on the Facebook page of the Bigstone Empowerment
Society, a group co-founded by Gladue-Beauregard in 2016 that
aims to improve transparency.

Gladue-Beauregard said there was an outcry about the plan when
the community learned about it, and the council backed down.

However, July meeting minutes show that even as the chief and
council voted to leave the severance allowance alone, they
voted to approach Mistassini Aboriginal Contractors Ltd.
(MACL), a band-owned company whose board of directors consists
entirely of the chief and councillors, “to request the funds
for a one-time dividends payment for chief and council as
following: $70,000 for chief and $60,000 for council members.”

It’s really sad, because we have a lot of members that are
living in poverty

With the existing $80,000 severance payment, the $70,000 bonus
would appear to bring Auger’s total compensation to $150,000 as
he leaves office.

Gladue-Beauregard said news of the bonuses didn’t leak until
the cheques were cut in September. Since then, three
councillors have published photos of cheques issued to them
that they appear to have rejected. Josie Auger, not one of the
three, told the Post in an email that she also refused the
money.

“It’s nobody’s business but ours,” said the chief in a brief
phone interview Wednesday.

The Post was unable to reach most of the councillors, though
two, reached by phone, declined to say whether they’d accepted
the money. One councillor, Stella Noskiye, said only that the
chief and council are “underpaid.”

Financial records provided to the federal government under the
First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA) show that the
chief was paid $90,000 in 2016-17, while each councillor made
$82,800.

Mistassini Aboriginal Contractors Ltd. was incorporated in
2015. The entire band council used to sit as its board of
directors, though two have since left the board, including
Josie Auger. The other, Gloria Anderson, sent a letter to
council earlier this year announcing she was resigning from the
boards of 27 band-owned businesses she had been sitting on. “I
believe that business and politics must be separate,” she
wrote. “A review of the current Bigstone Cree Nation business
entities corporate structure needs to be conducted.”

In a recent interview with local
publication Windspeaker.com, Chief Auger said he had negotiated
a “big contract” for MACL to work on a transmission line, and
the payout was in recognition of his work. “I said we deserve a
goddamn good bonus,” he said.

Under the FNFTA, all First Nations must provide financial
statements to the federal government. But the legislation
doesn’t require detailed information about band-owned
businesses, as that could put them at a competitive
disadvantage by forcing them to reveal private business
information.

Gladue-Beauregard said band members have little information
about revenue from band-owned businesses, and don’t even know
how many such businesses exist. MACL isn’t listed as a business
entity on the band’s website. He said the First Nation
desperately needs money to repair roads and improve housing,
and profits from band-owned businesses should be put to better
use on behalf of the membership.

However, it’s unclear whether the Bigstone Cree Nation chief
and council have done anything unlawful. An RCMP spokesperson
confirmed to the Post that the local detachment received a
complaint from a community member, but an investigation didn’t
lead police to believe “that any type of criminal act has been
committed.”

Still, Jones said that having the MACL board of directors be
comprised entirely of the chief and council “presents a number
of opportunities for conflict of interest.” He pointed to a
2015 court decision that
ordered a B.C. First Nation’s band councillors to repay bonuses
they had granted themselves without consulting band members.
“Generally, good governance would require that there’s kind of
a division between the political arm of the First Nation … and
the business arm,” he said. And in small communities where
overlap between the chief and council and business entities is
unavoidable, he said, “there’s a heightened need for there
to be transparency and policies to govern conduct.”

• Email: mforrest@postmedia.com |
Twitter: MauraForrest

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