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Elders group threatens to overthrow LFN chief

"We are not afraid to take steps to close all operations that pertain to LFN and its affiliates until we have transparency and accountability and our voices are heard."

A group of unhappy Liard First Nation members have threatened to overthrow their government if their demands are not met.

“We are not afraid to take steps to close all operations that pertain to LFN and its affiliates until we have transparency and accountability and our voices are heard,” reads a news release issued Monday, signed by about 30 people.

The group has named themselves the Liard First Nation Elders Council, and demanded a meeting with Chief Liard McMillan no later than Dec. 5.

But when the News reached McMillan on Dec. 4, he had not received any request to meet, he said.

The group has yet to notify his office of their complaints, said McMillan.

A copy of the news release was provided to the Liard First Nation by the News.

“I plan to meet with the elders in the new year, but I don’t recognize this so-called elders council. I’ve got concerns that it is not representative of the entire community,” said McMillan on Thursday.

The First Nation disputes the claim that the signatories represent 90 per cent of the families in the Watson Lake area.

“Upon reviewing the names myself, it appears that many of the signatures are from one single family,” said council member Jim Wolftail in the First Nation’s subsequent news release.

The elders council’s news release brought up a laundry list of grievances against the government, and supported their complaints with copies of resolutions from general assemblies, letters from auditors, and financial statements.

In summary, the complainants argue that the First Nation has failed to act on motions passed by the membership, lacks financial transparency and does not listen to their concerns.

“There are a lot of questions,” said Rose Caesar, a member of the elders council. “And people are really dissatisfied with the leadership, because ... they never get community members involved, except the few that they feel comfortable with or support them or whatever. It caused a big division in our community.”

McMillan admits that the First Nation has had financial issues in the past.

When he worked under the previous chief, there were personal loans given out in the “megathousands,” late audits and periodic staff layoffs when the First Nation ran out of money, he said.

That hasn’t happened since he’s become chief, said McMillan.

His government has worked to improve the situation, but change does not occur overnight.

Just two years ago, auditors were issuing the First Nation denials of opinion, meaning that there was too much information missing from financial records to provide an assessment.

Now, they are receiving unqualified opinions, which means that the books are in order and the numbers are trustworthy.

“I don’t think I’ve escaped accountability on the issue. We’ve debated it publicly inside the community at general assemblies and community meetings, there’s been protests and petitions, there’s been stuff pasted all over the news, including the Yukon News, for years and years on this issue.”

In terms of accountability, an election in some ways trumps a general assembly, said McMillan. And he’s been elected for four consecutive terms.

In response to unfulfilled resolutions passed at general assemblies, McMillan cited lack of capacity as the primary reason, and said that the First Nation continues to make steps towards many of those goals.

Some resolutions could not be acted on for legal reasons. A motion passed in 2009 called for the replacement of the First Nation’s executive director, a non-member from Outside, with a member.

The First Nation sought a legal opinion on the matter, and found that they would be in contravention of Canadian labour laws if they removed the director for that reason, said McMillan.

Several resolutions from a general assembly in August called for subsequent assemblies to be held as early as a month later to address the development of a constitution and issues with the First Nation’s development corporation, among other things.

A general assembly can cost upwards of $30,000 to organize, said McMillan.

“It’s a capacity issue. I don’t think we’re passing the buck on following up with the community on some of these resolutions. I think we intend to have a community meeting or two in the new year to discuss some of those resolutions in terms of follow up, but a full blown GA ... just doesn’t make sense.”

The elders council’s news release included financial documentation which it says is not detailed enough and fails to answer questions about where money is being spent.

Many of the issues raised were dealt with at the general assemblies in 2009 and 2012, said McMillan.

Auditors were on hand to answer the questions, and when more detailed information was requested, it was printed and distributed, said McMillan.

“To tell you the truth, the general assembly was quite heated and quite emotional,” said Frank Vullings, the First Nation’s director of finance.

“Maybe, by the time we got that information printed out and made public, people had moved onto another subject and in the heat of the battle they were pressing other issues.”

First Nation members are encouraged to submit requests for information to the finance director in writing.

Vullings has not received any requests for information relating to the questions in the news release, he said.

“I don’t mind being held accountable for mistakes that I might have made as a leader,” said McMillan. “But being characterized as a dictator-type politician who is corrupt and is pocketing money ... Give me a break.”

Two decades ago, the community was crying to end the hereditary chief system and have a democratically elected chief, said McMillan.

Dixon Lutz, who passed away earlier this year, was the First Nation’s last hereditary chief.

“I’d like to honour him for his service and recognize that he is that last hereditary chief of the Liard First Nation,” said McMillan.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at