Chief brings renewed calls for scrutiny of AFN financial policies to annual general assembly

Concerns about conflicts of interest resurface after similar motions defeated by AFN executive

Assembly of First Nations

A scene from the 2017 December chiefs assembly. This year's gathering is being hosted in Toronto but conducted virtually. Photo: APTN

A Yukon chief is reasserting the region’s demands for increased financial transparency at the Assembly of First Nations by bringing a resolution directly to the delegates during the organization’s 42nd annual general assembly.

If adopted, draft resolution 24 would direct the AFN executive to strike an external review committee to identify how contracts are awarded, review concerns about conflicts of interest and make recommendations to strengthen transparency and accountability.

“There is a little bit of a concern there,” said the resolution’s mover, Chief Roberta Joseph of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. “There may need to be improved policies, or need to be new policies. As every organization moves along, there’s always room for improvement.”

The resolution is similar to one passed by Chiefs of Ontario (COO) in February demanding external review of financial policies, which was obtained by APTN News.

Among the documents APTN obtained was an undated and unverified financial statement indicating the AFN gave a contract to a company called Indigenous Languages Revitalization Associates.

The company is owned by outgoing National Chief Perry Bellegarde’s spouse Valerie (Galley) Bellegarde and is based in their Ottawa home, APTN confirmed through the Ontario business and land registries. The company received four contracts since 2014, said AFN’s chief executive officer via email.

Outgoing National Chief Perry Bellegarde receives an eagle feather from Elder Mike Mitchell during the assembly opening on July 6, 2021. Photo: AFN/Twitter

The AFN executive consists of the national chief and 10 regional chiefs. They opted not to implement the COO resolution during a meeting held on March 30 and March 31.

The executive decided independent review was not required because internal accounting coupled with the AFN’s annual audit is sufficient, explained an AFN spokesperson in May.

Prior to the meeting, Ontario region expressed concerns that Bellegarde was violating the AFN code of conduct by not recusing himself from discussions about conflicts of interest. The AFN said the national chief recused himself from the “in-camera portion of the meeting that related to contracts on March 30.”

Documents obtained by APTN since then state the vote on the COO motion happened the following day. Afterward, Yukon region tabled a motion seeking internal review of AFN finance and management practices, as opposed to the external review requested by Ontario but this too was defeated, according to the documents.

Read More:

AFN facing conflict of interest concerns, call for independent financial review

Business run out of national chief’s home puts him ‘clearly in a conflict of interest,’ say Chiefs of Ontario

Joseph’s resolution reasserts the call for scrutiny but in slightly altered form, demanding “one Chief or expert from each respective region” form a committee to conduct the review and file a report.

Though she predicts support, Joseph also expects some opposition from the chiefs.

“They may determine that there’s already adequate policies in place, and they may determine that those policies are already being adhered to,” said Joseph. “But there is always room for improvement.”

The AFN received $34.2 million this year, most of it from Indigenous Services Canada, according to financial statements presented Tuesday.

This was down from the $46.1 million it received in 2020. Still, that figure more than tripled the $16.7 million the organization received in 2016 when Justin Trudeau tabled his first budget as prime minister.

Khelsilem, spokesperson for Squamish Nation Council in B.C., seconded the resolution. As an organization that receives millions in federal funds every year, he said the AFN needs to ensure it follows best practices.

“There’s a lot of issues around public confidence in the financial operations with the AFN,” Khelsilem said in an interview.

“The resolution seeks to strengthen that public confidence by ensuring that financial decisions are made in a fair and transparent manner and that conflict of interests, when they arise, are clearly identified and addressed.”

The executive must respect decisions by the chiefs in assembly, Khelsilem added, so he hopes to gain enough support from the delegates to send an “explicit message” to the national chief and the executive that measures to firm up policies are needed.

Three rounds of voting Wednesday night failed to elect a winner in a tight race for the national advocacy organization’s top job. Bellegarde announced in December he wouldn’t seek a third term.

Reginald Bellerose from Saskatchewan and RoseAnne Archibald from Ontario are the only remaining candidates. Fourth ballot results are scheduled for 3:15 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Chiefs expressed concern about low turnout when they debated Khelsilem’s resolution to delay the election on Tuesday, which was defeated.

The last two national chief elections had 522 and 462 votes cast on the first ballot respectively.

This campaign had 357 votes cast during the third ballot, and 406 chief or proxies had registered.

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