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Salt River First Nation 'spends $60,000 on Christmas tree'

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Almost 18 months after chopping down Fort Smith's Christmas tree to make room for a new building, the Salt River First Nation spent $60,000 on an artificial replacement, documents suggest.

In July 2017, the old tree – described by the CBC as "a beloved Fort Smith landmark" – was taken down during the night. The First Nation's conference centre, opened earlier this month, sits on the same site.

An artificial tree, said by a staff member to be worth $60,000, has since made an appearance in the new building's main hall.

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The First Nation’s councillors expressed surprise when they learned of the purchase at a special meeting on December 17, 2018.

The chief executive officer at the time, Mike Frank, told council about the purchase while Chief Frieda Martselos was out of the room, apparently due to a conflict of interest regarding another topic.

Frank's remarks are captured in a transcript of the meeting produced by ACE Reporting Services, an Edmonton-based provider of verbatim transcripts, and seen by Cabin Radio.

In an entry lacking punctuation, the transcript shows Frank saying: "There’s expenditures that you don’t simply put $60,000 for a tree purchased and I’m like all these things that we’re doing mass expenditures do council know about these expenditures?"

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He goes on to say: "I was here Saturday working unloading a tree that cost the Nation $60,000."

The purchase was news to the councillors.

“A tree? What –,” said an unidentified speaker, according to the transcript.

“When did all this stuff happen? Since I was gone,” said Cllr Ronnie Schaefer, whose signature could be found on a sign attempting to bar Martselos from the First Nation’s Tim Hortons just two days later.

Cllr Melvin Fortier asked at the meeting if the tree would be outside. He was told the tree was actually to be placed inside the First Nation's new conference centre, which opened on April 7.

“They’re putting a Christmas tree in there?” Fortier continued. “I could have cut that tree down and brought it in there.” (Fortier remains on council while Schaefer resigned in January.)

The tree is artificial. Frank told councillors: "It's in 30 boxes in the Quonset."

The meeting transcript then reads: “Everybody talking at once – indiscernible.”

'Really frivolous'

While Martselos told Cabin Radio she would not comment on any reports and asked never to be contacted again, some other members of the First Nation say they are deeply troubled by the reported purchase.

“We found that to be really frivolous spending," said Salt River First Nation member Jeannie Marie Jewell, who has been a vocal critic of Martselos' actions as chief. "I’ve never heard of a $60,000 Christmas tree before in my life.

“She's there to look after members, not [purchase] $60,000 Christmas trees."

“The [old] tree has been cut down,” added Toni Heron. “Why put an imitation tree up?"

A file photo of the Fort Smith's former Christmas tree in December 2016, the year before it was cut down

A file photo of Fort Smith's former Christmas tree in December 2016, the year before it was cut down. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Separately, the Town of Fort Smith has planted a new Christmas tree next to its town hall.

Shopping for commercial Christmas trees online, $60,000 in Canadian dollars appears able to get you a tree around 30 ft in height.

This is not the first time a tree said to be worth $60,000 has raised eyebrows.

In 2017, the Italian city of Rome bought a Norway spruce valued at $60,000 (in US currency) for its Christmas celebrations.

The tree promptly lost most of its needles, was nicknamed 'Baldy,' and found itself being compared to a toilet brush.

An Italian consumer rights group called for an investigation, saying the tree had made Rome "a worldwide laughing stock."