When Diane McRae was called urgently into her office on a Thursday in late June, she and two co-workers were in for a shock. These employees of the Gitksan Government Commission (GGC) office were about to be locked out.
“June 23 is the day we were asked to turn our keys in,” she said. “But I put forward I wouldn’t be doing that unless it was a request from the quorum of the board. So we were told to leave, and then the locks were changed.”
McRae is the executive director and the finance manager for the GGC, and she has worked there for 20 years.
“The other employees asked to leave were our housing coordinator and our social development advisor.
“Our capital advisor also left the building with us,” she said. “Our finance person was away on sick leave that day but she was also locked out.”
She said between them, they have about 65 years of experience working at the GGC.
“The issues that brought things to this point were not even discussed with us,” she said. “They just kind of blew us out the door.”
McRae said the action seems to stem from a series of events that began in February, and escalated in April when concerns among staff were brought to the board.
“The concerns went to the board meeting on April 7, and a subsequent meeting was set up for April 14 for the board to meet with all of the staff, to hear what the concerns were directly, rather than just through me,” she said. “Only two board members showed up to that meeting with the staff.
“It is a complex thing and there are a multitude of issues that are intertwined like a spider web. One thing led to another and the whole situation just snowballed out of control quite rapidly.”
McRae spoke with The Interior News after a call was placed to the paper from an upset employee in another part of the Gitxsan governance structure. The upset employee who asked not to be named claimed there was a lockout underway at the GGC. McRae said she can confirm the lockout has occurred, and she isn’t sure what is going to happen next.
“The whole situation is regrettable,” she said. “Had the concerns of staff been dealt with appropriately at the beginning of April … it is very unlikely that it would have escalated to this degree.”
Andrea McDonald, communications services manager for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, said Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), “is aware of the issues identified and is in touch with the different parties.
“When First Nations governments struggle with governance issues, the Department encourages the parties involved to work together and resolve their concerns,” she said. “INAC will continue to monitor and work with the Gitksan Government Commission to ensure essential services like income assistance, education programs and water monitoring are delivered to the Gitanyow, Gitanmaax, Glen Vowell and Kispiox communities it represents.”
For McRae, the question of how decisions are being made and who is implementing them without a quorum needs to be addressed. She said a quorum of three is required for decision making on the GGC board.
“We’re trying to work with a split board,” she said.
“It is definitely not a quorum of the board who is making the decisions in the last three months. They are just making decisions and implementing them without a quorum.”
McRae is concerned about services. With the exit of the employees, only two staff remained. However, she said the capital advisor and the membership administrator have been allowed to resume their duties.
“I don’t know how the services could be happening when the social development advisor is not there, and our finance person is not there,” she said. “Social development is an essential service … and for the cash flow to be released usually the department head signs off on it. I don’t know who is signing off and who is approving payments of what is going out.”
The GGC works with a significant budget of about $24 million per year, said McRae.
“It does fluctuate year to year depending on what capital projects are happening in our communities,” she said.
McRae said she believes the next GGC board meeting may be on Aug. 4. The GGC board members are Gitanmaax Chief Marjorie McRae, Kispiox Chief Robert Barnes, Glen Vowell Chief Robert Sampson and Gitanyow Chief Tony Morgan.
At press time, calls to the GGC office and board member Chief Marjorie McRae had not been returned.
McDonald pointed out that INAC has a default prevention and management policy which outlines actions the Government of Canada may take if its funding agreements with First Nations in the delivery of services and programs are in default.