The Liard First Nation has laid off almost its entire staff.
In one of the new administration’s very first moves, Chief Daniel Morris and his councillors closed the First Nation’s office on Friday afternoon and sent everyone home.
The mass layoffs came with no prior warning.
“After a cursory review of the finances, we realized that the First Nation is in significant financial stress,” said acting executive director George Morgan.
“It’s pretty bad.”
Chief Morris was unavailable for comment, and has not spoken publicly to any reporter since beginning his run for chief last November. Morgan said that will not be changing any time soon. His new role as executive director includes being the official government spokesperson.
Morgan didn’t say just how bad the financial situation is, but confirmed that nobody at the First Nation is being paid right now, not even Morris or the other councillors.
A statement issued by the First Nation blames the financial difficulties on unpaid debts to “vendors.”
The layoffs, which affect about 40 staff, will remain in place for the “short term,” Morgan said. Essential services like water delivery and homecare are still being carried out.
“Short term means as soon as this new chief and council can get a grip on the financial situation and talk to our partners at Indian Affairs and see if we can come up with viable solution,” said Morgan.
The First Nation currently has auditors going through the books trying to determine where all the government’s money went, Morgan said.
But according to former chief Liard McMillan, that audit should have been finished by now.
“The chartered accountants who are performing the audit for this year, my understanding when I left office is that we were about two weeks away from being done,” McMillan said.
McMillan didn’t run in December’s elections for chief and council, and left office on Dec. 16.
McMillan said he doesn’t know what could have happened to the finances in such a short time, but insists that things were not as desperate as Morgan says.
“When I left office prior to the election, there was money in the bank and also funding that was due to come in that did not require the completion of the audit,” McMillan said.
The last time Morris was chief, he implemented a loan program for First Nations citizens that McMillan said was questionable at best. Among the largest recipients of loans was Morris himself, who took more than $250,000, according to a report commissioned by the First Nation after Morris left office.
McMillan has long insisted that Morris took the money improperly and never paid it back, but Aboriginal Affairs refused to investigate the missing funds. During the last election, Morris maintained that he never took any money inappropriately and was instead made the scapegoat for other councillors’ unethical financial behaviour.
The last time around, Morris also refused to pay taxes to Revenue Canada, arguing that the First Nation government was tax-exempt. McMillan said that move cost the government $300,000 a year in legal fees and contributed to the nearly $2 million debt the government is currently saddled with.
McMillan admits finances have always been a challenge, even under his administration, but for the last 10 years the government has always managed to at least make payroll payments and never had to lay anyone off.
“As an employee, when Morris was chief last time, I recall he and his council laying off staff for two weeks out of the year without pay. It seems that we’re falling back into that pattern, unfortunately.”
Aboriginal Affairs is also auditing the First Nation’s finances. That investigation goes back to 2011, and does not cover the Liard First Nation Development Corporation.
Morgan said he has been in touch with Aboriginal Affairs and is hoping to set up a meeting with the federal department’s Yukon regional office soon.
Morgan ran against Morris in the LFN election in December and lost by only 22 votes. After the results were announced, Morgan said he was considering legal action over what he said was unfair vote counting.
“Our election regulations are very suspect,” Morgan said. “They don’t have any appeals mechanism so the only option is Federal Court,” Morgan said at the time.
But now he’s had a change of heart, he said.
“I thought about it over Christmas. I just thought that I’m just really tired of fighting. At the end of the day a court would have directed the First Nation to update its election regulations but that wouldn’t have helped me.
I was approached by council and asked if I would serve in this capacity in the short term. I’m still very passionate about helping to build good governance in Watson Lake. I want to see I can help us out of this desperate circumstance,” Morgan said.
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