As winter encroaches, poor families in Watson Lake are having to choose between paying for heat or groceries. Social assistance cheques aren’t enough to cover both.
Ask around and you’ll hear this story again and again. Push for the reasons behind this sad dilemma and you’ll hear a lot of vicious recriminations that will leave you more confused than before.
So it goes in Watson Lake, where problems are often far more complicated than they first seem. Especially now: after all, there’s an election underway, with four candidates vying to be chief of the Liard First Nation.
The incumbent, Liard McMillan, finds himself in the hot seat over the social assistance issue. His First Nation doles out social assistance on behalf of the federal government.
One challenger, George Morgan, accuses the First Nation of shortchanging its members.
Not so, says McMillan. He blames Ottawa for a bean-counting error. Now Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is trying to claw back overpayments, he said.
“If we don’t recover those amounts from clients, as the administrator of the social assistance program, the First Nation is in default, and Indian Affairs will recoup the money,” said McMillan.
“They’ll subtract right off the top, so we’ll get that much less.”
But that’s not true either, according to a spokesperson with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
A compliance review conducted two weeks ago did uncover a “relatively minor” problem with how the First Nation calculates social assistance payments, which resulted in some clients receiving slightly more money than they should.
But “there’s no clawback that’s going to happen,” said Dionne Savill, acting director of strategic investment. “We’re not going to do any recovery at this time.”
Yet it’s indisputable that Watson Lake’s needy are having trouble making ends meet. Father Joe Baca deals with them on a daily basis. He’s the priest of Saint Ann’s Catholic Church, and he helps run Watson Lake’s food bank.
Several parishioners use the food bank each day. Some are having to make tough choices about whether to heat their homes or buy groceries, said Baca.
“I’m just banging my head. I’m glad I can help them in some way.”
Morgan’s election campaign has tossed gasoline on this fire. Not only does he allege that funds are being mismanaged, but he claims he’s heard reports – although he has no proof – that social assistance funds are being diverted to the operations of the Belvedere Hotel, which the First Nation owns.
“That’s not true,” said McMillan. “If I did that, they would have handcuffed me long ago and put me in jail.”
Suspicions have hung over the First Nation’s finances since it acquired three hotels in the summer of 2007. These acquisitions were financed with more than $1 million from Ottawa, on the condition that part of one hotel would be used for affordable housing.
For two years, a run-down part of the Watson Lake Hotel reserved for this purpose sat empty. But the units have since been renovated and now house First Nation employees and members fleeing violence, said McMillan.
The rest of the Watson Lake Hotel hasn’t fared as well. It burned down in April.
When McMillan first swept into power in 2003, he did so by promising to clean up the First Nation’s finances. So it particularly stings him to now be accused of mismanagement.
Morgan pledges that “one of the first things I’d do, if elected, is a full accounting of what happened to the housing money.”
McMillan hasn’t taken these attacks lying down. He accuses Morgan of being just about the worst thing you can call someone in Watson Lake: a supporter of land claims.
Morgan’s father is George Miller, the current chair of the Kaska Dena Council of Lower Post. The council is attempting to negotiate a treaty on behalf of Kaska.
That includes Liard First Nation members, who have a long history of opposing the terms of modern land claims.
But Morgan’s take on land claims differs from that of his father. He describes Canada’s current attitude towards negotiations as “illegal” and out of step with recent Supreme Court decisions that have bolstered the strength of First Nations’ inherent rights. He’s in no hurry to see Liard First Nation settle its land claim, he said.
Until recently, Morgan worked as a spindoctor and policy wonk for Indian and Northern Affairs in Ottawa. He asserts his insider knowledge would give the First Nation a leg-up in dealing with Ottawa. “It’s invaluable,” he said.
McMillan charges that Morgan, as a recent federal employee, ought to shoulder part of the blame for the current social assistance woes.
“That’s just so stupid it’s really hard to believe,” said Morgan.
Morgan calls the First Nation’s finances a “mess.” McMillan agrees, but he says it’s a mess he inherited, and that the situation has improved markedly.
Auditors still approach the First Nation’s books with trepidation, but at least they no longer issue denials of opinion. McMillan points to newly paved roads and new social housing units as other signs of success.
McMillan has engaged in a noisy battle against Selwyn Resources, which wants to build a lead-zinc mine in southeast Yukon. Morgan calls this campaign “scatterbrained,” given how McMillan sits on the board of Northern Tiger Resources, a mining junior that struck an option agreement with McMillan’s father.
“He pretends to be our protector but he’s personally profiting at the same time,” said Morgan.
McMillan fires back that Morgan isn’t invested in the long-term interest of Watson Lake. “He’s somebody who’s just visiting,” said McMillan.
Morgan won’t say whether he will return to Ottawa if he loses the election. “What I’m going to do after the election is not important,” he said.
Morgan’s also faced criticism from Donald Taylor, Watson Lake’s most outspoken political observer, who wrote in a recent letter to the editor that Morgan “stated clearly he was not a Canadian.”
“Of course I’m a Canadian,” said Morgan. “Don is a silly man.”
The third contestant in the race to be chief is Daniel Morris. He was chief until 2003, when he was removed from office in disgrace, following his conviction for the vicious beating and rape of his estranged common-law wife.
Later, until McMillan’s tenure, band officers accused Morris of improperly lending $250,000 in band money to members. But the Crown failed to take up the case, despite several bankers’ boxes worth of evidence being delivered to the RCMP, said McMillan, so these allegations against Morris were never proven in court.
The fourth candidate is former councillor David Dixon.
Liard First Nation members head to the polls on December 6.
Contact John Thompson at