Ahtahkakoop administration's travel plans criticized by councilor, community

By Bryan Eneas
July 11, 2018 - 4:00pm Updated: July 11, 2018 - 6:36pm

Residents and leaders in the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation are unhappy over their chief and council’s decision to hold a costly meeting at a Calgary resort.

They’re arguing the strategic planning meeting could be held at home on their reserve, which could save the community substantial amounts of money and would let all members participate in the process.

“They do all their fiscal planning while they’re there, which is already done. We’re in a five-year plan already,” long-time Ahtahkakoop resident Lenny Sasakamoose told paNOW. “Some of the council who were at those meetings [in 2017] said they only met for six hours.”

Documents acquired by paNOW showed 27 people attended a strategic planning session hosted at the Fantasy Land Hotel in Edmonton Aug. 22, 2017. Different documents showed 11 members of Ahtahkakoop’s chief and council, along with representatives from different band organizations, were invited to attend this year’s meeting in Calgary. This year, Sasakamoose said, the chief and council are attending a meeting at the Grey Eagle Resort & Casino from July 10-13 to discuss a 10-year strategic plan for the band.

He estimated 30 people will attend the meeting in Calgary, which he said comes with a high cost. The resort's “standard king” rooms, the cheapest suites available, were listed at $144 per night, though some nights can cost as much as $305, according to the hotel’s website. The prices vary based on the dates.

Sasakamoose argued the money spent on sending Ahtahkakoop’s chief, councillors, and administrators to the meeting could be better used to benefit the community, as social issues abound. He believes the meetings cost as much as $100,000 each year, while conditions on the Cree Nation are so bad that he knows of one man who lives at the local garbage dump.

The band's chief and council were asked not to spend so lavishly on meetings, Sasakamoose said. A week ago he started circulating a petition asking the band's chief and council to hold the meeting locally to save the band money. Of the band’s 3,615 registered members, he said at least 200 have already signed the document.

“There’s about 50 band members that would not sign because of fear of repercussion,” Sasakamoose said. “I myself, after the second day of starting to take this petition around, I got fired.”

Sasakamoose said he worked as a shuttle driver and job finder for the Battleford Agency Tribal Chiefs, where Ahtahkakoop is a member. He said he wasn’t given a reason as to why he was fired, and felt he was targeted by the band due to the petition. Despite being jobless, Sasakamoose remained positive about his efforts to oppose the costly out-of-town meetings.

“It’s kind of given me more time to spend on it,” he said with a laugh.

Sasakamoose said he’s not against the chief and council holding an annual planning meeting. He just wants to see it happen in a cost-effective manner.

“We have so many issues here, and I think they are hiding their heads in the sand by holding these meetings at a resort and a casino,” Sasakamoose said.

Band Councillor supports the petition

At least one band councillor has added her voice to the calls to save money on the meetings.

Patricia Isbister was elected to the Cree Nation's council last June after the 2017 strategic planning meeting had already been organized. She said she attended the Edmonton meeting, but estimated just six to seven hours was spent conducting band business.

“Over the two days, the directors just read out of their annual reports book that the band puts out every year,” Isbister told paNOW. “Each department has to report on something in these books, but that’s all it was.”

Isbister said she was argumentative with her fellow leaders at the 2017 meeting and brought up a lot of issues, but felt ignored. She said she felt the meeting was designed to sugar-coat the band’s situation and didn’t accomplish much of anything. Poverty runs rampant on the reserve, she said, and Ahtahkakoop also faces serious housing issues and an 80 per cent unemployment rate; issues she hoped to address when she was elected to represent her community.

“There was no need for it to be in Edmonton,” Isbister said. “That was one of the things I was against, was all the travel. It’s a waste of money.”

Isbister said the band covers the cost of the meetings and she is boycotting the upcoming trip to Calgary in protest. She estimated the meeting costs between $80,000 and $100,000, and said she was told by a band administrator that each attendee was given $1,400 to attend. The councillor agreed with Sasakamoose that executive meetings seem to be a chance for the band's chief and council, along with directors and administrators, to take a paid vacation.

“They have meeting after meeting after meeting here,” she said. “There’s a directors meeting that they’ll have in Saskatoon. There’s an inter-agency meeting they’ll have in Saskatoon … I think all they do is go over a calendar and talk about upcoming events. It’s just a waste of time.”

She said three of her fellow councillors have signed the petition, thought they are still planning to attend the meeting in Calgary. Three others have pledged to sign the document after they return from the Calgary resort, she said.

Like Sasakamoose, Isbister said she is not against chief and council hosting strategic planning meetings. She’s against chief and council spending thousands which could benefit the community on meetings in faraway destinations, which the public cannot attend.

Chief says cost estimates overblown, meetings include legal updates

Chief Larry Ahenakew told paNOW that holding the strategic planning meeting in Calgary gives band administrators a few days away from the reserve to get clarity and focus on the task at hand, which is preparing a long-term strategic plan for the band to adhere to coming changes within the departments formerly known as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). 

Earlier this year, it was announced the federal government would consider moving towards 10-year agreements with Indigenous communities in order to provide more stable, predictable funding. In order to prepare for the change, Ahenakew said the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation's administration is shifting their five-year strategic plan to a 10-year plan. 

Ahenakew wasn't shy about the success the strategic plan has brought to the band. 

"INAC loves it," he said. "It brings our assessment points up by four or five points every year." 

When asked about the cost of the trip, Ahenakew called the $100,000 figure "ridiculous," and said the trip costs the band approximately $40,000, less than half of what Isbister and Sasakamoose estimated.

He said the trip was partially funded by the band's legal partners in an ongoing case against the federal government regarding the 'cows and ploughs' clause of Treaty 6, which hasn't been honoured since the signing of the document in 1876. He and his fellow councillors are expecting to receive an update from the legal team during their time in Calgary.

Ahenakew said each department is responsible for funding their representatives’ trips, and travel costs are also covered through the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority's trust money. Each attendee is responsible for providing or fundraising for their own "extracurricular" activities during the trip, he said. 

Travelling to Alberta to host meetings is not something new to chief and council, along with their department heads and administrators, Ahenakew noted. He estimated this annual meeting has been held in Edmonton for several years, though this was the first time the group had travelled to Calgary.

The chief said he was offended by the petition circulating in the community regarding the travel money spent on off-reserve meetings. He said he has been as open and accountable as possible with the community, noting their accountability won them an award five years ago, and said he would rather not see the Cree Nation portrayed negatively. Ahenakew said anyone who had questions or concerns about the strategic plan received a copy of the document before the delegates departed for Calgary, and it's something which had been freely accessible at various different events in the community.

Ahenakew also addressed Sasakamoose's concerns about potentially being fired over his petition. 

"I never fired anybody. I don't fire anybody from [the Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs]," Ahenakew said.

The chief noted Sasakamoose previously did some work on a contracted basis for the band, though that has not been the case for more than a year.

--With files from Taylor Macpherson


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