Chief defends hotel purchases

Liard First Nation never used federal housing money to buy three hotels, says its chief. Financial documents that bear Chief Liard McMillan's signature tell another tale, he concedes.

Liard First Nation never used federal housing money to buy three hotels, says its chief.

Financial documents that bear Chief Liard McMillan’s signature tell another tale, he concedes. But he says this is merely a case of sloppy phrasing, rather than the misspending of the First Nation’s $2.89-million share of the federal Northern Housing Trust.

McMillan expects to be taken at his word. He hasn’t provided any financial documents that show how the federal housing money has been spent, although he says that segregated accounting for this spending exists, as required under the deal struck by the First Nation and the Yukon government.

The First Nation bought the Gateway Motor Inn, and the Belvedere and Watson Lake hotels in June of 2007. According to the First Nation’s consolidated financial statements for that year, these hotels were bought with federal housing money, on the condition that part of the Watson Lake Hotel would be turned into affordable housing for its members.

More than two years after the acquisition, no affordable housing is available at the hotels. The Watson Lake Hotel is shut, its windows boarded up or smashed by vandals.

Plans to convert part of the Watson Lake Hotel into housing for seniors have been delayed by the economic downturn, said McMillan.

But the First Nation’s share of the federal trust helped build nine houses, and three more are on the way, he said.

As well, the money helped pay for the renovations of 36 homes, said McMillan.

The hotels were never bought outright. The First Nation’s development corporation continues to owe the hotels’ former owners a $1-million mortgage, according to land titles for the properties.

The sale price has never been publicly disclosed, but it was rumoured to be around $3 million. The acquisition was largely financed with a bank mortgage, said McMillan.

No housing money was used for the downpayment, he said.

Instead, the First Nation paid its development corporation $1.2 million in trust money for part of the Watson Lake Hotel, known as the Campbell Block, shortly after the hotels were purchased.

“Liard First Nation did not purchase hotels with housing trust money,” said McMillan.

Nor was there political pressure for his First Nation to purchase the hotels, he said.

Two close allies of Premier Dennis Fentie owned the hotels. One is Archie Lang, minister of Community Services. The other is Pat Irvin, a board member for Yukon Energy and a past campaign organizer of Fentie’s.

“Definitely, there were no strings attached, no strong-arm tactics,” said McMillan.

Had there been, McMillan would not have stayed quiet, he said. He notes he hasn’t been afraid to challenge Fentie in the past.

During the last election, McMillan encouraged his members to not re-elect the premier, who is MLA for Watson Lake.

Instead, the First Nation bought the hotels because they’re among the few viable businesses in the town, which has a shrinking population of about 850.

The hotel acquisitions, along with the purchase of an apartment building in 2006, have turned the First Nation into the town’s biggest property owner and taxpayer, said McMillan. This is a big deal for the Liard First Nation, which has no land-claim agreement and so must find other sources of revenue to pay for services for its members.

“First Nations deserve a little more respect. We’re not just welfare cases looking for handouts,” said McMillan.

Reports that the housing money had been used to purchase hotels have upset members such as elder Eileen Van Bibber. But the First Nation has repeatedly offered to build Van Bibber a house, only to have her object to its location near a traditional trail, said McMillan.

Another elder, who is upset that her trailer sits above a sewage spill, rejected a new house because it had no basement, he said. Yet McMillan says the house is bigger than his own.

The First Nation owns a total of about 150 housing units, he said.

Yukon received $50 million from the Northern Housing Trust between 2006 and 2008. Of that, $32.5 million has been allocated to First Nations.

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