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 …read more