The annual general meeting of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council was a jam-packed event that covered a wide array of important subjects of concern to the 14 nations who meet around the table, not the least of which is the planned 60 per cent cut by the federal government to tribal council program funding.
Other big issues on the agenda Sept. 26 and 27 included tsunami debris, that has already started to collect on west coast beaches, commercial fisheries negotiations regarding the implementation of the Nuu-chah-nulth court win on the right to make a living from marine resources, the proliferation of unlicensed and unregulated float homes in the ha’houlthees of the Ha’wiih in Barkley Sound, education jurisdiction, language revitalization and elder care.
But first on their list of things to do was the business of leadership. The delegates had to vote on whether to acclaim Ken Watts, the lone person who qualified for election, in the position of vice president of the tribal council.
The position was to be vacated that day by Priscilla Sabbas-Watts, who was elected vice president in 2009. She spoke to the NTC delegates and the many muschim gathered in the viewing gallery about her reasons for leaving the role.
She was candid about the pull of motherhood and her need to stay at home with her children, including baby Kailand, who was born in January. Sabbas-Watts had taken only seven weeks off for maternity leave when she had her son, but she was still required to attend some events during that time. Kailand had been at his first meeting at six days old, in fact.
Sabbas-Watts acknowledged her great-aunt (grandmother in the Nuu-chah-nulth way) Vi George who noticed Priscilla juggling the demands of the more than full-time job with NTC, a newborn, a four-year-old’s requirement for attention and the needs of a teenager. Vi George told her granddaughter that children have to feel in their hearts that they are a parent’s number one priority.
Sabbas-Watts said it got her to thinking and, though her children always are the number one priority in her heart, she wondered if they felt that all the time in theirs.
When Sabbas-Watts came to the decision to stay home with her children and announced it in Ha-Shilth-Sa, she received a text message from her grandma Vi, who told her how proud and happy she was of her.
“I knew I was making the right decision,” Sabbas-Watts said, adding that she didn’t like, however, to be perceived as quitting.
Priscilla had earlier thanked the NTC staff for the support they give to the Nuu-chah-nulth people, and she then thanked the managers at the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council for the passion with which they do their work in the service of the Nuu-chah-nulth-aht.
The tribal council presented Sabbas-Watts with flowers and an appliqued fringed capelet.
Ahousaht Chief Councillor John O. Frank thanked Sabbas-Watts for her contribution.
“Wherever you were needed, you were there,” he said, and the elected council and Ha’wiih stood to present a carving to her.
Ehattesaht Ha’wilth Tom Curley expressed the gratitude of that nation.
“Thank you again with the highest level of respect that we can give you,” he said.
Other nations would add their congratulations and best wishes to the outgoing vice president.
Later that morning the vote that would decide Sabbas-Watts’ replacement was closed. Sixty-eight ballots were cast with 50 in favor of accepting the acclamation of Ken Watts; 18 against. Watts carried the required 50 per cent plus one of eligible votes and a motion was carried that put him into the VP seat.
In his statement to the AGM delegates he said he was making a commitment to the group, and acknowledged the difficult time that was coming with cuts to tribal council funding. Watts said he remembered the advice of his father, the late George Watts, a founder of the tribal council, who said a leader is somebody who works for the people in the best interests of the people. And then Ken gave a nod back to the delegates as they faced the challenging time ahead.
“I believe in our people more than anything else; we can do anything that we put our minds to.”
The afternoon session began with a focus on the federal cuts to NTC program funding; an astounding 60 per cent by the fiscal 2014/15 year. NTC is not alone. Tribal council funding and dollars going to Aboriginal Representative Organizations, like the Assembly First Nations and the First Nations Summit, would all suffer from funding cuts, some more severe than others.
What it means specifically to NTC, however, is about $700,000 of the current $1.24 million it is funded will be gone. This funding is used to operate such things as the finance department, capital projects department, administration department, communications department, and leadership, all of which support all the other programs and services provided by the tribal council, as well as to its 14 member nations up and down the coast.
But there is a contradiction at play here, said Tribal Council President Cliff Atleo. For many months, the tribal council has been in the process of negotiating its usual five-year funding agreement with Aboriginal and Northern Affairs. The current agreement is set to expire in March 2013.
Aboriginal Affairs confirmed to NTC in correspondence July 26ththat there would be no change to tribal council funding if NTC decided to renew the agreement based on the existing terms of the current contract. Communication has been ongoing between the NTC executive and Aboriginal Affairs, and even up until last week there had been no mention of the proposed cuts.
Then, through a media release from Aboriginal Affairs sent to the organization, NTC received word that the program funding would be reduced to $500,000.
When asked about the contradiction, federal negotiators could not answer whether NTC would receive the funding promised during negotiations, or if the new funding cap would stand. The federal negotiators have sent to Ottawa for clarification.
If the tribal council funding is capped at $500,000 per year, those funds are to be used on the shared priorities of the federal government and First Nations, said Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan.
Said Ahousaht’s Angus Campbell, the tribal council is not an organization that implements the priorities of the federal government, or be a tool of the department of Aboriginal Affairs.
“That rings loud, loud, loud,” he said.
Earlier in the day while voting was being conducted, the regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations BC, Jody Wilson-Raybould, talked about the uniqueness of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. Of the 14 nations, some have treaties, while others have not and are still operating under the Indian Act. And the tribal council is delivering huge programs and services to the communities.
“There are situations and realities that they have not taken into account, have not taken into consideration,” she said about the proposed formula to cap all tribal councils at $500,000. It ignores “the programs and services that the tribal council and nations are engaged in.”
And while there are differences between the Nuu-chah-nulth nations, said Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker, there are more similarities, and what the nations have in common is kinship.
“Tseshaht knows that this is one nation in this room,” said Braker. “There is more that unites than divides us… We see that as the biggest strength around the table.”
He said he would fight tooth and nail to ensure there continues to be a tribal council. He will not see the tribal council weakened.
Nations around the table called for unity in fighting the proposed cuts, while also preparing for a new reality, a significantly altered tribal council. They said that neighbors on Vancouver Island should also be informed of the federal government’s intention and the impacts on one of the Alberni Valley’s major employers.
The next day NTC President Cliff Atleo would tell the Alberni Valley Times that 20 per cent of Port Alberni residents are Nuu-chah-nulth. Services to them will be compromised, as would dollars that flow into the economy.
The impact of this severe funding reduction, if allowed to stand, would significantly undermine the purpose of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council to build strong, self-determining, healthy communities by providing equitable social, economic, political, and technical support to Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, reads an NTC press statement released Sept. 27.
The Stephen Harper federal Conservative government has picked a fight with the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island, and today the 14 nations that make up the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council have committed to stand shoulder to shoulder in that fight, the release said.