Manitoba chiefs order child welfare agency board to suspend reformist director

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Chiefs with a northern Manitoba tribal council have taken the extraordinary step of forcing the suspension of the official in charge of running a child welfare agency responsible for four northern First Nations.

It remains unclear exactly why chiefs with the Island Lake Tribal Council moved to place the Island Lake First Nations Family Services executive director on administrative leave with pay while ordering a “full review on the administration practices and the delivery of services” of the organization.

The situation has created concern among some in child welfare sectors that other chiefs may feel emboldened to politically meddle in the operations of First Nation child welfare agencies as a result of the Island Lake Tribal Council’s actions.

A letter from tribal council chiefs sent last month to the Island Lake First Nations Family Services board ordered the temporary leave and a report on the review to be completed by this week.

“It has come to our attention regarding grave concerns of the management style that is being administered in the Island Lake First Nations Family Services organization,” said the Feb. 16 letter, which was signed by three of the four Island Lake Tribal Council chiefs and obtained by APTN. “We are directing you to address the concerns that have been brought forth regarding the conduct of the executive director.”

The letter was signed by Garden Hill First Nation Chief Dino Flett, Red Sucker Lake Chief Sam Knott, and St. Theresa Point Chief David McDougall. Wasagamack Chief Alex McDougall, who is chair of the tribal council, did not sign the letter.

In a brief interview with APTN, Chief Alex McDougall said he didn’t sign the letter as a result of a miscommunication, but he supported the request for the temporary suspension.

“Children, they are at risk, that is why we are trying to deal with the issues,” he said. “I will decline to make any comments on the story you are pursuing.”

The Island Lake First Nations Family Services board is currently overseeing management of the organization in the interim.

It also appears the board was not in agreement with the chiefs’ request to suspend the executive director who has been on the job since 2015, according to a separate letter from the acting CEO of the umbrella organization that oversees First Nation child welfare agencies in northern Manitoba. The letter, obtained by APTN, summarized a Feb. 23 meeting between the Island Lake board and the First Nations of Northern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority—also known as the Northern Authority.

“Throughout the discussion, the board expressed in very clear terms that they valued the work that the executive director has completed since (they) assumed (the) position in November 2015 and clarified that they did not have any specific concerns regarding (their) performance,” said the letter, signed by Bryan Hart, acting CEO for the Northern Authority. “The board clarified that the above concerns were actually coming from community members which were only recently brought to their attention. The board indicated that it was their opinion the executive director does not deserve the criticism being directed against (them).”

The letter stated the board expects the executive director to return to their position after completion of the ordered review.

In the letter, Hart called the decision to suspend the Island Lake First Nations Family Services executive director as “highly unusual” and “extraordinary.” The letter stated the board listed three issues behind the temporary suspension: the high rate of apprehensions, the placing of too many children in the homes of a particular nationality and the breadth of administrative changes to the Island Lake First Nations Family Services organization since 2015.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the executive director had been reforming and improving the child welfare organization which led to the termination of several employees. The sources said the tribal council chiefs have faced pressure from certain key members in their communities to move against the executive director as a result of the terminations.

“People were let go, a lot of them. There were a lot of issues, a lot of staff were just collecting paycheques,” said one source. “The new director demanded a higher level of accountability. (They) didn’t want staff to be there to collect paycheques, but do the work and make things better for the children who come into care.”

The provincial Department of Families, which directly oversees the Northern Authority, declined to comment and referred questions to the Northern Authority.

In an interview with APTN, Hart said the Northern Authority does not micromanage local organizations. He said the Authority would continue to “monitor” the situation and maintain “dialogue” with the Island Lake First Nations board.

“The board has to be independent discharging its duty from that standpoint or the Northern Authority will have a problem and lead to some formal intervention,” said Hart. “We expect the board to maintain an independence and do what is best for the organization.”

Hart said while it was “unusual” for the board to take over administration of the child welfare organization, it was well within its rights under existing laws and rules.

He also said First Nations leadership have a role to play reflecting the concerns of their community.

“There is an expectation there among the community that they do have a voice,” said Hart.

Hart wouldn’t discuss the possible ramifications of the situation.

“What comes later will determine itself. When you take a position in a leadership role in this area you expect there are going to be some challenges when you look at the system and circumstances,” he said. “The challenges we have, with First Nations working within a provincially governed (child and family services) system, sometimes you see the tension at certain times, more than other times.”

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