Members of the Liard First Nation are incensed by their chief’s refusal to explain why nearly $3 million in federal housing money was used to buy three Watson Lake hotels.
“Members haven’t benefited from nothing,” said Eileen Van Bibber. “This is wrong.”
The acquisition, made in June of 2007, was justified with the claim that part of the Watson Lake Hotel would be turned into affordable housing for seniors and members with special needs.
But, more than two years after the sale, that hasn’t happened.
The hotel is closed, its windows boarded up. And the windows that have not been boarded up have been smashed by vandals.
Chief Liard McMillan has not returned repeated calls from the Yukon News over the past week. Alex Morrison, the boss of the development corporation that oversaw the hotel purchases, refuses to comment.
The Yukon government, which was supposed to administer the Northern Housing Trust funds on behalf of Ottawa, says it was in the dark about the hotel acquisitions. It’s now asking the First Nation for details on the expenditures.
The First Nation told the territory that it would spend its $2.83 million on building between 10 to 12 housing units.
Other potential projects included 15 major and 30 minor renovations, as well as a pilot home-ownership program and a feasibility plan to create a local housing authority.
It remains unclear how much, if any, of this work was done.
But this much is clear: the First Nation used its federal housing money to purchase the Belvedere Motor Hotel, the Watson Lake Hotel and Gateway Motor Inn. And no affordable housing is currently offered at these hotels.
The funding agreement between the First Nation and the territory was finally made public yesterday, when Premier Dennis Fentie tabled it in the legislature.
The deal allows the territory to claw back remaining money if it’s found that the funds were not spent on affordable housing. The remaining money would then be redistributed to other First Nations to spend on housing projects.
But it’s unlikely much of Liard First Nation’s housing money is left. The sale price of the three hotels has never been publicly disclosed, but it was rumoured to be in the range of $3 million.
Liard First Nation was supposed to have provided the territory with an accounting of how the housing money was spent. But the First Nation never disclosed the hotel purchases, said Dermot Flynn with the territory’s land-claims secretariat.
And territorial officials never saw the First Nation’s consolidated financial statements for 2007, he said. A page from these statements, obtained by the News, shows the federal housing money was used to purchase the hotels with a plan to turn part into housing.
The First Nation’s use of the housing money has been an open secret in Watson Lake for some time, said Van Bibber.
Van Bibber and other members tried to ask what housing would be built with the federal money at a general assembly in April, she said. It was the first general assembly to be held in at least four years.
The chief offered few details, she said.
“Nobody knows nothing: what’s going on, what deal was made, was never discussed with the members,” she said. “It was never discussed with nobody.”
Van Bibber knows “lots” of members who are upset. But few are willing to speak out when the First Nation controls much of the housing and jobs in the village.
“People are intimidated,” she said.
Van Bibber is free to be a critic because the home in which she lives is not owned by the First Nation. And she’s an elder, so she’s no longer looking for work from the band.
She’s observed little evidence that the First Nation has improved its housing stock since receiving the federal money. Much of the existing housing is in shoddy shape and badly needs repairing, she said.
She has one elderly friend who lives in a trailer that sits on ground contaminated by a sewage spill.
Another elder she knows cannot shut her front door without regularly banging the frame free of ice. She’s 84. “That’s not right,” said Van Bibber.
Meanwhile, new housing units cannot keep pace with the number of young families looking for a home of their own. Typically, about three housing units are built by the First Nation annually, she said. It’s not enough.
“A lot of people are having a hard time finding a place to stay,” said Van Bibber.
There are other grievances. The band-owned laundromat is shuttered, creating a big inconvenience for those without a washing machine.
And Van Bibber has seen no progress moving much of the village from trucked water to piped service, leaving many members vulnerable when the water truck breaks down.
Fentie signed the First Nation’s funding agreement in February. He hasn’t responded to several interview requests.
Two of Fentie’s close political allies benefited from the deal. One is Archie Lang, minister of Community Services. The other is Pat Irvin, who was recently appointed as chair of Yukon Energy’s board of directors.
Lang and Irvin owned the three hotels. Neither of them returned calls, either.
The Yukon received a total of $50 million from the Northern Housing Trust. Of that, $32.5 million was divvied up among First Nations to spend as they saw fit.
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