Stephanie Whitecloud-Brass column

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on social media about “conflict of interest” and how it leads to the scrutiny of one’s level of accountability and transparency. In particular, I am referring to the Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde and the relationship he has with his partner/political advisor, Valerie Galley. Many have already weighed in with their opinions and when I first read on June 24, 2015, that the AFN Chief’s Communications Officer did not think that this was a major issue, I could literally feel the raise of my brow. Who determines what is an issue and what is not? The last time I checked, it’s the people who make that determination. So, if the First Nation masses, through their respective leaders, feel as though there is an issue that warrants discussion, then it is settled; it will remain an issue until it is properly resolved.

Apparently, the controversy began when Ava Hill, Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, wrote to the AFN Chief and recommended that despite the fact that Ms. Galley “probably” has the qualifications to be a member of his political staff, that he “immediately take steps to rectify this conflict of interest situation,” as Ms. Galley is also his “girlfriend.” In her letter, dated March 3, 2015, she specifically made reference to the criticism that First Nations consistently receive with respect to their accountability and transparency.

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I agree with Chief Hill in the sense that Perry Bellegarde is the National Representative for First Nation Chiefs. By hiring his partner as one of his political advisors, he is doing nothing but inviting scrutiny into an office where the level of confidence was already arguably low when he got there. And just because he can hire whoever he wants as political staff, doesn’t mean that he should. There are likely many other people out there who are equally qualified to fill such a position. It would be different if the AFN Chief and Ms. Galley were running their own private business or corporation for their own benefit and gain however, this is far from the case. The AFN is not their own private enterprise, but an organization that is supposed to represent the First Nation collective and that is what I believe to be the crux of the issue. Because Ms. Galley is his partner, how can the AFN constituents, and the public in general, ever be certain that her motives are business oriented and focused on the good of the collective as opposed to being personal and serving in his/their own interest? The truth of the matter is that until you actually step into their working environment and see for yourself, you will never really know.

Various outlets have since reported that AFN Chief Bellegarde has admitted that a conflict of interest exists. To rectify this situation, he now has Ms. Galley reporting to the AFN CEO, Peter Dinsdale. In this regard, I echo the concern of Six Nations former Chief Bill Montour when he stated to Turtle Island News that, “…technically, everyone at the AFN reports to him (meaning AFN Chief Bellegarde). It would appear to me, by having her report to the CEO, Perry (Bellegarde) has made her actual staff. At least that is the way it appears.”

And in my opinion, this is what matters; how it appears. The AFN is no stranger to controversy when it comes to conflict of interest. I understand that in the days of its leadership under Phil Fontaine, his partner, a lawyer in her own right, was a negotiator and advisor for the AFN on the residential school settlement issue. Further, in 2014, B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould came under scrutiny for maintaining her position with the AFN while running for the Liberal Party of Canada. In each of these instances, including the one currently faced by AFN Chief Bellegarde, the question is, whose interest(s) are being served?

Moving forward, it is always important to think about how we can learn from these types of situations and make the changes necessary to prevent their reoccurrence. Although integrity should be the gauge of most of the decisions we make, it is apparent that strict human resource policies and guidelines should also be created or amended to properly address the varying scenarios of both, perceived and real conflicts of interest. And overall, it doesn’t matter how big or small someone thinks an issue is; if it affects or has the effect of affecting the big picture, then it needs to be addressed. As someone who wants to see purpose and progress in First Nation organizations like the AFN, I hope that this issue is addressed promptly and appropriately so that it is no longer on anyone’s radar and that focus on the real work can occur. Time will tell.

Stephanie Whitecloud-Brass is a member of the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation. You can reach Stephanie at Sunchild Law, her email address is: stephanie@sunchildlaw.com

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