APTN National News
An anonymous letter alleging “misogyny, sexualization of Aboriginal women” and “lateral violence” at the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia triggered a probe by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada which released its findings Tuesday.
The probe of the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) comprised a chapter in the Auditor General of Canada’s fall 2015 report.
The anonymous letter, also obtained by APTN National News, alleges that there are factors at the FNHA, which was birthed through a tripartite agreement between B.C., Ottawa and First Nations, that created an environment of “unfettered cronyism” that threatened to squander a “momentous and unprecedented opportunity.”
The Auditor General’s Office was conducting a study of the FNHA by examining its history and evolution when in mid-2015 it received the anonymous letter. The letter pushed the auditors’ work from a study into a full blown audit of the FNHA’s accountability and governance framework.
The audit did not examine the merits of the allegations, but how the FNHA responded to and investigated the complaints.
“We found that weaknesses in the (FNHA’s) accountability and governance framework…contributed to inadequacies in its response to the allegations,” said the report.
The report found that the viability and success of the FNHA depended in part on its ability to improve its governance structures and policies.
“As the (FNHA) shifts from a period of transition to the delivery of programs and services, its success will depend on its ability to demonstrate that it has the accountability and governance framework in place and on its compliance with its policies,” said the report.
The Auditor General recommended the FNHA fix its governance structure before it constructs new office space in Vancouver to consolidate its headquarters.
“This is a major capital project that will cost millions of dollars and take several years to complete,” said the report. “In our opinion, it will be important for the (FNHA) to have finalized its work on updating its accountability and governance framework…before it proceeds with the consolidation so that decisions related to the consolidation can withstand external scrutiny.”
The Auditor General also recommended Health Canada, which was a signatory to the tripartite agreement, needed to “become more involved” in helping the FNHA strengthen its governance and accountability frameworks.
In response to the federal audit, the FNHA said it had established a “whistleblower policy” along with an “enterprise risk management policy,” according to the audit report. The FHNA said it was in the process of improving its policies and governance around hiring, conflict of interest and remuneration of senior executives.
The FNHA is the product of over a decade of work that created a ground-breaking First Nation agency designed to deliver health programs services to First Nation communities in B.C.
Through the officially named Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nation Health Governance and a federal funding agreement, the FNHA is slated to receive $4.7 billion in funding from 2013 to 2023. The agreement includes an annual 5.5 escalator for its first five years.
The Auditor General said the FNHA’s creation solved some of the persistent problems that cripple health services for First Nations.
On the surface, the agency has been a success story. But internally, it seems, the agency has been suffering from allegations of serious governance problems that, according to the anonymous letter, has left some employees suffering from mental health issues.
Anonymous Letter (redacted)
Some of the allegations contained in the anonymous letter concerned hiring practices at the FNHA and a focus on women’s looks.
“A senior leader was ‘strongly advised’ to hire female candidates based on looks and body types. They were not the best qualified applicants. Senior leaders wanted to hire them because they are ‘pretty Aboriginal woman,’” the letter alleged.
The federal auditors found several instances where there was little evidence to support the qualifications of individuals hired by the FNHA after reviewing the personnel files of 14 managers.
The auditors found that only three of the 14 positions had been publicly posted or had a rational for why no competition was offered. The audit found that only six of the 14 personnel files had a resume on record and only two contained documentation supporting the claimed education level. Auditors also discovered that only three of the managers had undergone a background check.
The report said the lack of documentation found in the personnel files contravened the requirements on hiring the most qualified candidates stipulated in the tripartite agreement.
The auditors investigated allegations contained in the anonymous letter around “workplace misconduct,” according to the report
The letter alleged that a “highly skilled Aboriginal leader” was “openly sexually harassed … with witnesses present.” It also alleged that one former employee left the FNHA due to “lateral violence, bullying and misogynistic statements.”
The auditors asked senior officials at the FNHA about these incidents.
“Senior officials told us that they had asked managers across the organization whether they knew of these incidents and stated that accounts of such incidents were not brought forward,” said the audit report.
The report found the officials’ response lacking in its thoroughness and did not meet the FNHA’s own internal policies.
“We found the (FNHA) had completed no documentation setting out steps taken, including whether it had conducted any additional investigation beyond asking managers whether these incidents had taken place,” said the report.
The audit report also examined allegations of conflict of interest contained in the anonymous letter.
The letter alleged spouses and siblings held senior positions with the FNHA.
The audit report found that “the approach taken in this situation was adequate.” The report said the FNHA’s board of directors knew of this conflict and sent letters to the affected employees “outlining conditions that would have to be met to manage the conflict.”
The FNHA released a joint statement with Health Canada Tuesday morning after the release of the Auditor General’s report.
“We welcomed this external review of operations and viewed the audit portion as a learning opportunity. The FNHA has openly expressed itself as a learning organization and acknowledges there is work to do as the Authority evolves, and this work is underway,” said the statement.