‘Office locks changed’ in latest Salt River political battle


Salt River First Nation’s new chief and councillors are at odds just one month after the election, with some councillors said to have changed locks on an office building so the chief can’t get in.

As a result, Chief Toni Heron called a special meeting on Sunday evening in an attempt to remove councillors Brad Laviolette and Kendra Bourke from office.

Cabin Radio was unable to reach Laviolette and Bourke, who are leading an effort to remove Heron from her position.

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Heron, who became chief a month ago, said the conflict started almost immediately after September’s election.

Heron said one of the new council’s first acts was a motion to hold a special meeting that would inform the First Nation’s members about a proposed new office building.

A sign identifies an empty lot as a future development area of the Salt River First Nation. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A sign identifies an empty lot as a future development area for the Salt River First Nation. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

At the next council meeting, Heron said, Bourke tried to rescind that motion.

The chief says she told Bourke she couldn’t do that, saying members of the First Nation had a right to know about the proposed building and the costs associated with it. 

Heron says Laviolette then produced a three-page letter listing the reasons he believed Heron was failing in her duties as chief, a month into her term.

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“They made a motion to pretty-well take all responsibility away from me as chief,” Heron told Cabin Radio, including preventing her from managing any of the First Nation’s finances.

Heron said Laviolette and Burke convinced three of the other four councillors to sign the letter on October 6. She said a fourth councillor, Levi MacDonald, told the others that action was wrong. According to Heron, another councillor later claimed to have been forced to sign the letter.

Each side says the other is out

To summarize the sides the councillors have taken, Laviolette and Burke are understood to be joined by Freda Emile and Warren Sikyea in an attempt to remove Heron from office. Heron says MacDonald and Don Beaulieu now stand with her.

Sikyea and Laviolette could not be reached. Messages left with Emile, MacDonald, Beaulieu and Bourke were not returned.

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“[The letter] escalated things,” said Heron. “Then I called a special meeting for the members – it says in our election code that the chief can call a special meeting of the members to deal with the conduct of councillors’ behaviour.”

Heron says she had letters hand-delivered to the two councillors in which she wrote: “Under Section 155 of the election code, I’m calling a special meeting of the Salt River members on October 23 to remove you from office. Until this meeting is held, you are no longer deemed to uphold the responsibility of councillor for the Salt River First Nation.”

A poster declaring the meeting alleged Burke and Laviolette breached rules of conduct, undermined the chief, and improperly tried to rescind a special meeting.

A week after that poster went up, after Thanksgiving, the four councillors opposing Heron are understood to have called their own meeting and made a motion to suspend Heron for 60 days. At the same time, they appointed Laviolette acting chief.

Heron says Laviolette and Burke are relieved of their duties. Laviolette and Burke’s motion states Heron is suspended.

While Heron ran against four others for the position of chief, all of the councillors were acclaimed in September.

The conflict escalated further this Monday, when Heron says the opposing councillors had the locks changes on the First Nation’s office. 

“To put new locks in and keep the employees out is totally wrong,” said Heron, who alleges some councillors have been seen in the building while she and employees have been locked out since Monday night.

Calls to the office by Cabin Radio were not answered.

“I really, honestly thought we were all going to work together,” said Heron.

“Brad Laviolette was the first one to come to the office, the very next day after I got elected, saying, ‘Congratulations, I look forward to working with you.’

“He had some great ideas of what he wanted to see done within the First Nation. And then 20 minutes later he calls back and, with a different tone, he said, ‘I just got a call from an employee saying they’re afraid of you [and afraid] that you’re going to fire them.’”

Heron insists she has no intention of firing anyone and asked the First Nation’s chief executive to call a meeting for all employees, so she could reaffirm that.

“I’m here to work with everyone. I’m here to work for the nation. That was my goal,” she said.

Salt River politics: ‘a merry-go-round’

While the council members may be different, the conflict is not new.

In the past 15 years, there are at least eight recorded instances of Salt River First Nation chiefs or councillors resigning or being petitioned to leave amid some form of acrimony.

The best-known incident related to that turmoil involved then-chief Frieda Martselos being banned from the First Nation-owned gas station and Tim Hortons in 2018.

“It’s just like a merry-go-round when it comes to Salt River politics,” said Heron, who was a councillor for two terms in the early 2000s.

She wasn’t allowed to run for more than a decade after that, as Martselos – now the MLA for the area – accused her of misappropriating funds. The election code bans people from running for office if they have a debt to the First Nation, have taken the First Nation to court, or are undergoing a forensic audit.

While RCMP spent a year investigating financial irregularities and laid no charges, Martselos has maintained the one-time councillors were overpaid and should return the money.

Heron’s special meeting is coming up on Sunday.

“I really believe that this is solved if the members do come out and they do want to change. If they want change in their Nation, then they will make that change come Sunday,” said Heron.

“Hopefully, they will consider and relook at the whole structure of the Nation and start fresh, and make some big changes.”

The meeting has been moved to Roaring Rapids Hall after the locks were changed on the office, Heron said. It will start at 5:30pm.