July 25, 2015 - 1:00 PM
“I HAD SOME BURLY GUY TELLING ME TO SHUT UP:” BAND ELDER
WESTBANK - Westbank First Nation members will have to make a quick decision to bail out its troubled private hospital project and some say band officials are intimidating members to get their way.
Band members will have three weeks to decide and one hour to vote on only two options to pay off nearly $8 million in debt.
Barb Hill, an elder, attended a tense two-hour meeting at the band’s community centre Thursday night where 30 band members were given details on the band’s position and nearly $8 million in debt the band owes due to its partnership in the failed project.
She and others say they weren’t satisfied with either option and felt bullied when they voiced their opinion.
“There’s a whole bunch of us who don’t like the choice we’ve been given. They want us to borrow the money or let the land go, A or B, they’re not giving us another choice but we want to talk about C, D and E,” Hill says. “They’ve got a gun aimed at our heads. They want us to bail them out so this will all go away."
Chief Robert Louie confirmed on Thursday the band is in on the hook for $7.9 million if it wants to recover the land it put up for its share of the Lake Okanagan Wellness Centre. Band members will be asked at a referendum next month if they want to borrow money to buy back the 12-acre parcel it allowed to be used as security for a line of credit of $15 million.
Ad Vitam, the company the band partnered with on the project, stopped making payments on the account last February, leaving the band liable for the outstanding $7.9 million or face losing the land to the Canadian Western Bank.
At Thursday’s band meeting, officials presented two options — either pay the outstanding debt from band corporate operations or form a new holding company that would borrow funds from a band business account as well as draw from band operations.
Hill and other members who spoke to Infonews.ca say officials refused to consider other possibilities and intimidated band members who came up with alternative suggestions by berating them publicly.
“If I asked a question, an employee might answer it, then one of the council members would jump up and try to say what I asked was not relevant. We’re here to get clarification, not get in an argument about why we brought it up. They had us in a circle trying to be traditional Indians where you take turns speaking. Well traditional Indians are supposed to listen to what the person has to say, not shout them down. I had some burly guy telling me to shut up, that I wasn’t part of the community and that what I had to say wasn’t relevant,” Hill says.
Her account was confirmed by another band member at the meeting. Terri-Lyn Tiljoe says the meeting was supposed to be “respectful” with members sitting in a round table, but she was shocked to hear an elder shouted down.
Tiljoe says Hill suggested the band stop “building houses and sidewalks until you have the money because right now we are just wasting it. She was stating her point that she would stop until we got all the financial affairs in order.”
The referendum is slated for Aug. 11 with voting allowed from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. only.
Hill says she has signed a petition calling for the resignation of Louie and councillors Brian Eli, Chris Derrickson, Mike De Guevera and Mic Werstiuk and would ignore demands to keep band business confidential.
“I wanted to be the first to sign the petition. And they can’t stop me from voicing my opinion about who I want as chief and council. They said we could be sued for libel if we said anything outside this supposedly secret meeting. We were criticized for revealing information yet Chief Louie holds a press conference and says whatever he wants.”
In a press conference earlier in the day, the chief discounted the recall petition which claims he and his council violated the band’s constitution by incurring a debt over $500,000 without first getting member approval by referendum.
Louie said the band didn’t incur the debt — their partners did — and insisted indemnifying the loan was not a constitutional violation.
“There has absolutely been no breach of council governance nor has there been a WFN constitutional breach nor a breach of our requirements that we operate under,” Louie said.
Four copies of the petition are being passed around but none of them have been filed with the band. Twenty per cent of the voting membership must sign a petition to force a possible recall.
There are between 500 and 600 voting members.
At the press conference Thursday morning, Louie said band governance, its finances and business dealings would continue to be closely held and he would not comment on them again. Louie did not respond to a request for an interview Friday afternoon.
Westbank First Nation Chief Robert Louie takes questions from reporters at a press conference Thursday morning, July 23, 2015.
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015