Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In the least, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras needs to stop claiming to represent Treaty Six nations, argued the Development Foundation of the Treaty Six Confederacy in Court of Queens Bench Nov. 18.
And at most, the court should force an election for the position of regional chief as the current mandate ended June 30.
“I am not making any … orders today … to direct Ms. Poitras to do anything here,” said Associate Chief Justice Nielsen.
He did, however, urge the parties to “move forward” and hold elections as Poitras has indicated she wants an election and will run again.
But neither an election nor setting an election date is on the agenda for the upcoming Assembly of Treaty Chiefs (AOTC) gathering next week. The AOTC represents 49 First Nations in Alberta.
Each of the three treaty areas operates through a Provincial-Territorial Organization (PTO): Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations (CTSFN), Treaty 7 First Nations Chiefs’ Association (T7FNCA), and Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta. The AOTC also represents First Nations that do not have a PTO affiliation.
Instead, reform of the AOTC will be the focus of the meeting. The draft agenda includes national advocacy, representation and the AOTC’s relationship with the AFN.
“This discussion is needed by Alberta Chiefs in order to give direction on important issues and matters as it relates to how Alberta Chiefs and First Nations work together and to identify what issues are common and collective to all,” wrote Anne Many Heads, CEO with T7FNCA in an email to Windspeaker.com. “This is in order to have a collective Alberta voice.”
She said there may be some discussion about the regional chief election, but “there will not be an election held at this event.”
The PTOs rotate hosting AOTC meetings. The 2021 summer annual general meeting fell to Treaty 7, but was never held. It was to include the election.
Presently, the AOTC’s terms of reference require the regional chief serve three years and that the election be held no later than June 30 of the third and final year.
The terms also include a vacancy clause, which stipulates that if the office of regional chief becomes vacant then the duties are assigned to the six executive chiefs (grand chief and deputy grand chief from each treaty area).
However, the executive chiefs did not step in in 2017 when regional chief Craig Makinaw resigned prior to fulfilling his three-year term. Instead, an early election was called for Feb. 22, 2018 and Poitras won. She finished Makinaw’s term and continued into her own.
In an interview with Windspeaker.com on July 22, Poitras said her term had been extended “because of COVID. The chiefs wanted to have a face-to-face meeting.” She said they didn’t want a virtual election.
However, at that point, according to the affidavit sworn by Poitras on Sept. 20, she was already aware that then-Treaty Six Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker wanted her removed from office because her term was ending and no election date had been set.
Complicating the matter of Poitras’ removal—or even a call for an election—is the Assembly of First Nations Alberta Association (AFNAA, also known as AFNAB). Poitras serves as president of the AFNAA, which has a board separate from the AOTC.
According to documents filed by the AFNAA in court, the AFNAA was incorporated in 2017 by Makinaw, but not operationalized until 2018 by Poitras.
The national AFN organization flows its funds for Alberta First Nations through the AFNAA. As such, says AFNAA, “the funding contract for the Regional Chief funding is between AFNAA and AFN only.”
“…Our (AFNAB) board will meet to consider whether this is a situation where the executive chiefs can lawfully assume the duties and responsibilities of the regional chief,” wrote Piikani Nation Chief Stanley Grier in a letter dated June 14 and addressed to Watchmaker, who indicated the need for Poitras to step down. Grier serves as secretary/treasurer of the AFNAB.
“We wish to ensure the executive chiefs appreciate that even if this is an appropriate situation for them to assume the duties and responsibilities of the regional chief, this would only give the executive chiefs the duties and responsibilities of one member of the board of the AFNAB, namely the president. It would not give the executive chiefs control of AFNAB as an organization or give them full control of the AFNAB board.”
In the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations’ statement of claim filed in Court of Queen’s Bench on Sept. 13, CTSFN says that by Poitras enacting AFNAA, she “avoided the obligation to account to member nations in good faith and with transparency.”
CTSFN also claims that AFNAA was operating “outside the structure” of AOTC terms and that Poitras did so without CTSFN’s knowledge.
According to AOTC terms, AFN’s funds are to flow through one of the three PTOs, or the PTOs rotate the duty during the course of the three-year term of the regional chief. However, says AFNAA, since at least 2015, AFN funding has been administered through organizations other than the three PTOs.
CTSFN calls Poitras a “rogue former Regional Chief.”
CTSFN is also asking for full access to unredacted records held by AFNAA that pertain to the office of regional chief and to Treaty 6.
In response on Nov. 18, Poitras and AFNAA questioned CTSFN’s legal standing, arguing that CTSFN has “no legal association” with Poitras or AFNAA as it is individual First Nations that are the rights holders and not the PTO.
Poitras and AFNAA also point out that the AFN is not party to the legal action undertaken by CTSFN. They say the AFN funding agreements contain a mandatory dispute resolution clause which CTSFN has not accessed.
In June, Watchmaker wrote then-national chief Perry Bellegarde informing him that the office of Alberta regional chief would become vacant and the duties would be undertaken by the executive chiefs. He asked Bellegarde to change the AFN website accordingly and to send to him “AFN policies and procedures and other pertinent information that I will require to perform the responsibilities of this office.”
However, Janice Cavaglia, AFN’s chief executive officer, responded by saying, “As the election is a regional prerogative, the national AFN does not involve itself or intervene in these regional processes.”
In an affidavit sworn by Gina Potts, chief of staff for CTSFN, she indicates that she was informed of conversations had by Treaty 6 personnel with AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who “refused to get involved at the regional level and was unable to broker a resolution.”
Financial statements prepared by MNP show the AFN (through the National Indian Brotherhood) provided AFNAA with close to $900,000 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021. Indigenous Services Canada funded $166,435 in that same time frame. AFNAA budgeted for $1,172,185, but received close to $1.3 million in funding. The financial statement also indicates $434,454 spent in salaries and benefits, which is less than the budgeted figure of $525,000. However, nearly $99,000 was spent on travel, $65,000 on honorariums and $31,000 on board expenses.
Justice Nielsen put the matter off to an unspecified date noting that very little had been accomplished between the initial proceedings Sept. 23 to now. Among the concerns voiced earlier were whether CTSFN had standing and then whether Poitras and AFNAA knew who the plaintiff was.
“Nothing has changed, except that perhaps this has become more complicated because we do not know the standing issue,” said Nielsen.
The AOTC gathering will take place Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at the Grey Eagle Centre in Tsuut’ina Nation.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.