As election called, Salt River First Nation budget fails again

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The Salt River First Nation has failed to pass a proposed budget for a fourth time after members could not agree on a chair for a meeting last week.

Council first attempted to pass the budget on February 18 and has subsequently tried on March 11, April 6, and June 3.

The meetings – each filmed by some members using their phones – have at times ended in yelling matches. On occasion, councillors have resigned.

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June's meeting appeared to end because a majority of members rejected the chair in order to avoid the use of a secret ballot regarding the budget.

Allegations of impropriety are levelled by some members toward the First Nation's leadership, though the detail is difficult to prove as little documentation is publicly available.

The First Nation did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An election of chief and councillors has been set for September 16.

April 1 marked the beginning of the new fiscal year and the budget consequently runs from April 1, 2019 until March 31, 2020. Generally, the inability to pass a budget places severe restrictions on the spending capability of governments at any level.

The Salt River First Nation has monthly operating expenses of around $400,000 according to an administrator at a December 17 special meeting.

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Last Monday, the First Nation advertised 10 draws for $200 each to encourage members to attend and vote at the meeting.

The same was offered at the previous three budget meetings. In total, the council is believed to have offered $8,000 in draws to attract meeting attendees.

Questions over detail

Salt River First Nation Chief Frieda Martselos won a leadership award from the Aboriginal Financial Officers' Association in 2017 for straightening out her First Nation's finances.

However, at a special meeting in December, some councillors reacted with surprise on learning Martselos had purchased a $60,000 artificial Christmas tree for the First Nation's new conference centre. Several councillors suggested, in a verbatim transcript of that meeting, they had not been consulted regarding the purchase.

The new building itself has been a point of contention, as the First Nation required a loan of up to $17.3 million from the First Nations Finance Authority to pay for its construction.

The three-page budget presented by the First Nation's leadership to its members has faced questions regarding its perceived lack of detail, for example regarding sums earmarked for consulting, contracting, and professional services – which total just over $1 million of the $3.4-million budget.

At the June meeting, Martselos told members: "I want you to understand that the budget is extremely important for all the programs here at Salt River."

However, some members say not enough money is set aside for education.

In a budget dated April 6, the First Nation provided $372,100 for culture and education under columns relating to staffing, consulting and contracted services, operating expenses, and council honoraria.

"A lot of people fear retaliation from her, and that's why they won't speak out," said former Thebacha MLA and NWT cabinet minister Jeannie Marie-Jewell – who has spent years opposing Martselos.

"How many times is she going to come to the membership and try to get her budget approved? In any other process you vote once and you don't get it, that's it for that [governing] body," said Marie-Jewell after the third attempt to pass the budget.

"What's she going to offer next time for members to come in to support it?"

Marie-Jewell is supported by Toni Heron, a Salt River First Nation member who – alongside other former councillors – was taken to court by Martselos over allegations they had misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars. While RCMP spent a year investigating financial irregularities and laid no charges, Martselos still alleges the one-time councillors were overpaid and is demanding they return the money.

Heron alleges Martselos offered to curb any future court action in return for support of the budget – an offer Heron said she declined.

Martselos did not respond to requests for comment.

'I won't be running'

In mid-March, Marie-Jewell penned a petition to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) requesting the federal department place an administrator in charge of the First Nation.

Marie-Jewell's petition alleged irregularity in the means by which the First Nation's election and financial codes were being followed.

Cabin Radio was unable to obtain a copy of the financial code document despite repeated attempts, but has seen an unsigned copy of an election code dated November 2017.

Marie-Jewell, Heron, and former Dene National Chief Noeline Villebrun say according to the financial code, the First Nation should have a finance committee comprised of people who are not on council to provide oversight.

Marie-Jewell said such a committee has not been formulated, and suggested its absence leads to reduced accountability.

Villebrun said, as a result, members could have the impression of a First Nation being run more like a personal business than a level of government.

In December, a handful of councillors – some of whom have since resigned – attempted to bar Chief Martselos from the First Nation-owned Tim Hortons franchise.

At the time, Martselos, who says she has faced longstanding pushback from a segment of the First Nation's membership, told Cabin Radio, "I feel the same thing is happening all over again."

At the fourth budget meeting in June, Martselos said she would not run for the position of chief in the forthcoming election.

"As you probably know, there is an election coming up," Martselos can be heard to say in a recording of the meeting.

"The election is on September 16, and I won’t be running in that election … and I want to make sure that everything is left here in good order."

The September election will see the role of chief and six councillor positions decided.

In the meantime, Marie-Jewell has circulated another petition that requests Martselos resign and an early election be held.

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