The Salt River First Nation's Business and Conference Centre in June 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A judge has backed the Salt River First Nation’s suspension of its chief, a move taken by several councillors just a month into Toni Heron’s term.
Over the weekend, both the Salt River First Nation’s chief and a few of its councillors tried to remove each other from office.
The current conflict stems from differing opinions about how much should have be shared with Salt River First Nation’s (SRFN) members about a contract the Nation bid on, and what to do about a court case some members have brought against the Nation.
The new council took office in mid-September and tensions have been rising from the start. Last week, Cabin Radio reported the councillors opposing Heron had locked her and the office staff out of the First Nation’s administration building and had passed around a three-page letter listing the reasons he believed Heron was failing in her duties as chief to the other councillors to sign.
The day after the motion was made, Heron called a special meeting of members to vote to remove councillors Kendra Bourke and Brad Laviolette from office. Member Jeannie Marie-Jewell said the special meeting was called on October 7, when Heron was still chief.
A few days later on Ocotober 13, the majority of the councillors passed a motion to suspend Heron for 60 days.
Bourke, one of the councillors who led the effort to suspend Heron, shared a federal court order with Cabin Radio over the weekend that states the councillors’ motion to suspend Heron will stand.
“Heron is hereby prohibited from exercising or performing or purporting to exercise or perform any of the duties and powers of the Chief of Salt River First Nation,” wrote Judge Ann Marie McDonald in the order dated October 23.
The judge did not stop Heron from holding a special meeting that same day to vote to remove Bourke and Laviolette, writing, “I am not prepared to issue an order that prohibits members of the SRFN from convening or attending a meeting.” But the judge stated Heron could not act as chief during her suspension.
Meanwhile, a Salt River member posted on Facebook following Heron’s meeting that members in attendance voted to remove Burke and Laviolette from office effective immediately.
Burke said she and Laviolette didn’t attend the meeting, saying Heron called the meeting while she was suspened and therefore it was not a valid meeting, contradicting Marie-Jewell’s timeline. Heron earlier told Cabin Radio that according to SRFN’s election code, the chief can call a special meeting for members to deal with a councillor’s behaviour.
Burke added she understood some non-members had attended Heron’s meeting, and questioned if all people that attempted to vote her and Laviolette from office actually had voting rights.
Marie-Jewell said 62 members attended Heron’s meeting on the weekend. Of those members, 61 voted to remove Laviolette from office and 55 voted to remove Bourke.
“To remain in office after the 62 SRFN Members voted them out is a total disregard and disrespect towards the members of our Nation. It is also blatant disrespect in their actions by not upholding our election code,” Marie-Jewell wrote to Cabin Radio.
Marie-Jewell also argued the councillors broke the election code by not getting the approval of members before going to court, and calling a council meeting to suspend the chief, as only the chief has the power to call council meetings. For these reasons, she says the court order and suspension are not valid.
Laviolette, who the First Nation says is now the acting chief for the next two months, is planning to hold a meeting for members soon to update them on the ongoing situation. The meeting is not yet scheduled, said Burke, but information about it will be posted around town once it is set.
What led to the suspension?
Asked why Heron had been suspended so early in her term, Bourke wrote to Cabin Radio that Heron “could have put SRFN in financial jeopardy by continuing on with the special meeting called to members of SRFN to talk about a confidential bid we were working on, a bid that has the potential to generate millions of dollars for SRFN.”
Salt River’s chief executive officer, Elizabeth Westwell, confirmed the Nation had submitted a bid for a GNWT contract. Details regarding the GNWT’s request for proposals (RFP) for that contract are scarce. The competition was by invitation only and confidential, said Westwell.
A spokesperson for the Town of Fort Smith said the contract is for a new territorial fire centre that is expected to be built in Fort Smith.
Standard GNWT contracts include boilerplate information banning proponents from communicating, colluding, and lobbying.
This means people with knowledge of a bid are not allowed to discuss their proposal – either directly or indirectly – with other people who may be submitting a proposal. Proponents are also banned from engaging “in any form of political or any other lobbying whatsoever,” which includes communicating directly or indirectly with territorial government representatives for any purpose.
“In the event of any lobbying or communication in contravention of this section by any proponent, or their respective directors, officers, employees, consultants, agents, advisors or representatives, the GNWT … in its discretion may at any time … reject the proposal submitted by that proponent without further consideration,” reads the GNWT’s general information section in a public RFP.
Cabin Radio has reached out to the territory’s finance department – which handles RFPs – to see if Heron’s special meeting to talk to members about bidding on developing the territorial fire centre would break the GNWT’s rules, given it’s likely some of the members are either territorial government employees or may own or work for companies putting in competing bids.
Bourke said she believed the territorial fire centre RFP included the same language prohibiting communication and lobbying as most other GNWT RFPs exhibit.
Councillor worried settlement could bankrupt First Nation
Burke said Heron “was trying to convince council to meet settlements with others who have court cases, potentially putting our TLE (Treaty Land Entitlement) at risk. As a councillor we take an oath to protect our TLE and this is what council was doing by suspending Toni.”
A GNWT site notes Salt River received $83 million and 414 square kilometres of land from the federal government in the early 2000s when it signed a treaty settlement agreement.
Bourke explained SRFN has beneficiaries of the TLE, people who were members when the TLE was signed in 2002 – as well as non-beneficiaries, who applied to become members of the First Nation after the agreement was signed.
Beneficiaries received a $3,000 lump-sum payment at the time the TLE was signed, and have received additional payments annually since then.
In 2017, CBC reported 145 members had been excluded from the annual treaty payment. Some had been receiving the payment since they became members, which Bourke explains was a mistake.
But in response to being denied the annual payment, some of the non-beneficiaries took Salt River to court, accusing the First Nation of violating their human rights. The case is still in the court system, and Bourke said the TLE prohibits the First Nation from reaching a settlement with anyone who takes the Nation to court.
“If she went ahead and paid off these people, it would set precedent for them to claim more costs going back to 2002, and we would be bankrupt within 10 years,” Bourke said, noting the First Nation is currently in a good financial state and that she, Laviolette, and others don’t want to jeopardize that.