Saturday, October 11, 2014

A YEAR IN THE DARK


Almost a year ago I began a journey. It started when someone suggested I attend a meeting involving my First Nation.  I asked questions.  Apparently I asked the wrong questions. Feathers got ruffled.  Asking questions about finances and political accountability will do that. 

I grew up on a street called Doghead, nestled in the small hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. 
It is s where I call ‘home’.  I belong to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN).  My late dad, who was a traditional trapper, was a respected member of the community.  My mom, Therese, at 95 years of age is the oldest living member of our First Nation.

My mom was always known to let her thoughts be known when she believed there was an injustice perpetrated on her children.  She was never afraid to challenge those in power. She was always writing letters to the band office, and no wonder, with 16 children, she was our only advocate.   

You see, I come by my tenacity and desire for answers honestly.

To be clear, when I started asking questions it was not an effort to criticize our chief and Council. The fact is I was proud that my cousin had been elected Chief.  He made assurances during his campaign to have a more open and transparent government, and I believed him.  I wanted to help and support him fulfill his promises to our members.

However, after I attended that first meeting I could not stem the feeling that something did not feel right, there was a foul smell around the business.  Things were just not adding up.  

Corporate Meeting

ACDEN Corp. Fort McMurray, Alberta
On October 23rd, 2013 I went to my first corporate meeting for ACDEN, which is our First Nation’s business corporation.  It is apparently a successful business, reportedly with $270 million in annual revenue, providing various services to the heavy oil industry in northern Alberta. 

Any illusions that I was going to a ‘business as usual” corporate meeting was shattered within seconds of arriving.  As we were entering the meeting room, in our newfangled $40 million state-of-the-art office building, a vice president whispered to a member, who is also an employee of the corporation, as she walked by him.  He said, “watch what you say if you want a pay cheque next week!”  It did not seem as if it was meant as a joke.   Holy smokes, I thought!  Where was I? China?  North Korea? The Soviet Union?  

I should have known, though.  There was already a foreshadowing of this attitude. Prior to the meeting, I had written to request specific corporate documents to review for the meeting.  I didn’t get an answer. (The fact is I didn’t get any response to any of my letters over this past year.)  So I followed up with a call to the President of the company, who passed me off to a vice present when I called, and who informed me that the financial statements for our corporation would not be provided to me. He did say however, that if I wanted to review the financial statements I had to do it at their office.  Unfortunately, I was only in town for one night, having arrived from Ottawa specifically for this meeting.   Not to mention that in order to adequately review the financial statements it would take more time than I had.

I wanted to find out more.  So I had done a search of the corporate documents for ACDEN that are filed with the Alberta government.  I learned that the chief and Council are each named as directors and shareholders in the ACDEN corporation, in trust for our First Nation.  Ultimately, ADCEN exists for the wellbeing of the members, both present and future.  

Our elected leaders are trustees when they act as directors and shareholders and owe the legal duties of trustees to the First Nation (which of course means the members who make up the First Nation) in relation to the conduct of ACDEN, our corporation.  So I had every expectation that I would be given the information I requested.  After all, as a member of ACFN I was one of the ultimate owners of our company and the shareholders had a trust obligation to me in relation to the affairs of ACDEN.

Oh, how naïve I was!

The meeting began with raised questions, but none were answered satisfactorily.  Frustration from the floor was palpable. It struck me how very much it was like Parliament during Question Period.  (The Speaker of the House of Commons recently said there is a good reason why it is called “Question Period” and not “Answer Period.”)  In other words, our questions were treated as annoyances, to be responded to flippantly or just dismissively.

We were treated to a PowerPoint presentation that only serve to infuriate the members further. The graphs and charts zipped by, and those of us in attendance, especially the elders, had difficulty processing what we were being shown. Some members could not even see the screen, and asked for copies.  Initially we were told we couldn’t have copies, but we insisted, and finally – after a long delay -- copies were provided.  But the presentation had no figures about the revenues or profits of the company.

The chief, who is chairman of the board, was absent. However, the President was on his cell phone talking to him for much of the meeting, essentially giving feedback on how the meeting was going. I gather he had known it was going to be a difficult meeting and chose to not attend.  He could at least have participated by speakerphone to speak to and listen to the members in attendance, but he was interested only in feeding information into the meeting through the President.

This corporate meeting was billed as an information meeting but I didn’t witness any real information being presented. And the realization that only ones benefiting from our corporation with $270 million in annual revenues are the people who are employed, or have contracts through ACDEN, of whom I understand fewer than 1% are ACFN members.

There was no information about how profitable our corporation was, or what it owned, or what debts it had, and where any profits went.  We were in a brand-new  $40 million dollar state of the art office building and didn’t even know how much equity our corporation had in it.  It turns out, apparently next to nothing!  The building is mortgaged to the hilt and apparently the down payment was covered by a line of credit.

In my opinion this meeting was designed superficially to meet the minimal requirements of appearing to inform the members on general corporate matters. What we were given was the type of presentation you might give to prospective clients, with graphs showing a glowing picture of a successful corporation and all the services it claims to offer.  This is a corporation that should have enough resources to address some of the major financial issues of the First Nation if only managed well.

Hence, the question members are asking is if it is so successful, why are our members broke and lacking in opportunities?  ACDEN does not employ our members, and all we get is $1,000 at Christmas time.  We are grateful, but is that all the money ACDEN is making?

Membership Meeting

After the ACDEN meeting I decided to travel to Alberta again for a March 6, 2014 membership
meeting.   I was looking forward to asking our chief my questions directly.  It was unfortunately much the same as the October corporate meeting.  Apathy blanketed the room and members sat dispiritedly with low expectation that this would be any different than previous meetings.

They voiced their concerns and asked questions, some punctuated with strong emotions. However, it was immediately obvious that they didn’t feel like they were being heard. The chief became defensive and argumentative. His body language and facial expressions resembled someone who wished he were anywhere else but there. There was much eye rolling and swiveling in his chair. Clearly, he heard the questions before and was fed up. And the Councillors didn’t say anything.     

Moreover, the meeting was not designed to engage discussion. It was set up to provide information only.  It was all one-way, with the chief providing information and members listening. There was an elder who participated by the phone, having just had surgery to address complications from cancer.  After she hung up, the chief said, “I will never allow this again!” visibly upset that she had made comments he didn’t agree with.

I came away from the meeting feeling discouraged, listening to people saying as they left, “what a waste of time.”  I felt used, like we’re there to rubber stamp policy, and other initiatives that have already been decided. Because I really felt that the meeting was not intended for a conversation on the merits and concerns of the membership. Or to obtain direction on what the members felt were priorities our leaders should be focusing.  

I left with more unanswered questions. I approached the chief with one more letter, asking for compliance with a federal law that was about to come into effect, requiring financial disclosure to members. He looked at it, tossed in aside, and said, “that law is not my law.” 

Our Integrity is All we have

My relationship with my chief was irreparably impaired.   Also, my relations with his direct supporters, who happen to be close relatives of mine, is also in question, all because I dared to say out loud what members were saying amongst themselves.

Although, I don’t think the issue was asking questions because they obviously are used to members’ discontent. What seems to have pushed it over the edge was a blog postI wrote on the Neil Young Tour and my subsequent cbc radio interview.  

I wasn’t against the tour as such. In fact, I agreed we must be mindful of the environment and ramifications of oil industry on our environment and health. However, I suggested the message be more balanced.  As the tour progressed, the tour that was billed as “Honour the Treaties” became an extended rant against the oil industry.  The message about our treaty rights was lost.  In addition, media coverage in Alberta revealed that the oil industry and non-Aboriginal people in Fort McMurray were offended by the anti-industry rhetoric from Neil Young.

I tried once more to help the Chief as the tour ended.  I advised him to make a gesture to heal some of the wounded feelings that the tour had generated, and repair any damage with the city of Fort McMurray and our business partners in the oil sands industry.

I sent him a draft open letter that could get a more nuanced message out to the public.  His communications coordinator told me that Neil Young’s publicist said it would be backsliding on “their” position.  The very idea of such a draft letter was rejected.  I think if this letter were taken seriously it would have presented the chief in a different light, as someone capable of taking a hard stand, but of acting with a sense of diplomacy and statesmanship.  Instead he took the advice of someone with no stake in his First Nation’s future because he thought he was winning a public relations war and didn’t want to seem weak.

I blogged about my concerns and tried in my own way to communicate the message that our First Nation and the industry have a complex relationship.  We are economically dependent on industry but at the same time need to ensure that resource development takes place responsibly, because we are also dependent on the land.  It turned out that my message was of interest to the media, and I was asked to give some interviews.  I tried very hard not to criticize our leaders but tried at the same time to convey the more complex message that the Neil Young tour had failed to generate.

Following this, a couple of my family members deleted me as their “friend” on social media, and some took the extra step of blocking me. I received a scathing email from one of them stating, “What you are doing has great potential to hurt all of the work that the leadership has worked so hard to achieve.” 

This “wrongdoing” was writing the blog about how conflicted I felt about the Neil Young Tour and the message of division that the media coverage had created around it.  
DiCaprio and ACFN members

Desmond TuTu and chief Adam
I couldn’t help but notice that many of my critics are either employed by or have contracts with our First Nation, and or are enjoying some benefits and perks such as hobnobbing with celebrities and catching reflected glory.  Indeed, these individuals don’t want to rock the boat. 

Democracy?

What prompted my involvement initially was a telephone call, and like my mom, I could not stand by when a perceived injustice was taking place. It involved a band member who was employed by the First Nation who had questioned a large expense cheque, and which resulted in that person’s firing.  

Then I learned subsequently of the appalling circumstances under which that person, having been fired for questioning an expense cheque, was induced to “sign” a release of the First Nation from further liability.  I trust strongly in the integrity and moral character of that person, and feel that the treatment of that person was indefensible. This was a “red flag” that something was fundamentally wrong with how band affairs were being run. This ‘whistleblower’ actually thought that the chief and Council would respond differently for the diligence shown in seeking proper justification for an expense claim.

The word that comes to my mind is oppression. The firing immediately became an object lesson to all employees and contractors, a prime example to anyone who would dare to question the validity of an expense claim, or by extension any other arbitrary decision of chief and Council.  The message sent to the employees across the board is unequivocal. The ripple affect of that one action is still being felt today, in the form of a total clampdown of any information relating to any financial matter, especially relating to the expenses of our political leaders. Which begs the question, are there other expense irregularities? We’ll never know.
He sent me this after my CBC interview

And for me, my personal experience is that if you speak up you will be chastised and shunned. The last part of of the chief's text said, "I hope you know what you just did",  this was the last time he texted me.  He has not acknowledged any of my texts and letters since January 30,2014.  

This it is not a democracy.  This is more of a third world type of governance where leaders provide benefits only to their supporters and the people are intimidated into submission. I do understand the silence from our members.  It isn’t all apathy; much of it is fear.  Although we supposedly live in a democracy, the majority are afraid to speak up.  It is no wonder, when a few control all the resources and with no access to basic information we are rendered powerless.

We know complete power can breed abuse of power.  I am not saying this is what is happening.  But I honestly don’t know.

I do know that a lack of substantial information, transparency and accountability makes this is a perfect storm for oppression, intimidation, and control.  This is just the tip of an iceberg.  Over this past year I have heard more stories of abuse of power and intimidation. I am not so proud of my cousin the Chief at the moment, and the Councillors who allow this to continue.  

Using my Voice!

Why would I write about the private business of my First Nation in a public blog, you might be thinking.
  • This blog is about my life, and over the past twelve months this very issue has preoccupied much of my time and energy. The withholding of vital information, answers, and a perceived lack of good governance is an affront to all our members.
  • Although I don’t relish being seen as an agitator, I feel strongly that silence perpetuates injustice.  When people are silenced an additional injustice is done to them.
  • Being part of a First Nation is a privilege.  But with that privilege comes responsibility to ensure we have strong governance that is benefiting all members equally.  Individually, we have a duty to be involved by offering our expertise by volunteering, creating committees and giving back to our community.  Collectively, we must look toward creating a strong nation based in the foundation of respect, accountability, and a shared responsibility.
I have no illusions that blogging about my experience will change the power disparity of my First Nation. However, judging by the conversations I’ve had over the past year with various members, I am confident that the members are ready to take their power back.  All I can do is hope that I planted a seed that will encourage us to collectively to recognize we can have a government that is empowering, successful and progressive. We must work together.

As we approach next Fall, and the opportunity to elect a new Chief and Council, we ought to be generating ideas amongst ourselves regarding what type of governance we would like to have.  Fundamentally as I see it, the problem is systemic, and real reforms must occur now in order to bring us into the 21st century and into a true democracy. I am hopeful that members who are considering an elected position next Fall will generate a movement toward total inclusion within a open and transparent government.  

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