Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador Innu band heads to court to stop election

An Innu chief in central Labrador is asking the Federal Court to halt an election called over allegations of inappropriate spending.

Sheshatshiu spending decisions on travel, idled arena questioned

Dozens of Innu dissidents attended two public meetings to protest financial decisions by the band council. (CBC )

The chief and council running the Innu band in central Labrador have begun filing documents with Federal Court to halt a new election that was called amid allegations of inappropriate spending.

Sheshatshiu Chief Sebastien Benuen and other leaders of the Innu band are asking the court to quash a bid for a special election slated for Dec. 15, arguing that personal and business interests are behind a drive to oust them from power.

The election was called after a group of dissidents forced the issue at two public meetings in November. Organizers cited spending decisions by the council, including the use of a trust fund to pay bonuses to two unnamed individuals and overtime to band staff.

Benuen is not commenting on the attempt to unseat him. However, his lawyer, Toronto-based attorney Maggie Wente, said the support for the dissidents has been overstated, even though more than 200 people attended one of the meetings.

"Their information was that, certainly from some community members, they were told the petition said one thing. They signed it, and the petition said another thing," said Wente. 

In documents filed with Federal Court, Benuen accuses Max Penashue, one of the leaders of the citizens' group, of plotting against him, because the band council delayed Penashue's plan to open a gas station.

As well, in an affidavit, Benuen accuses organizers of providing alcohol and drugs at community meetings, including one where residents unanimously voted for a new election. CBC News covered that meeting from start to finish, and did not see anyone distribute alcohol or drugs.

In court documents, Benuen claims there is "nothing in Sheshatshiu's customary law that would allow community members to unilaterally schedule an election."

Spending choices contested

The nub of many residents' complaints has to do with spending decisions by the current band.

Financial statements obtained by CBC News, for instance, show the Sheshatshiu council spent $438,914 over the past year on maintaining and repairing a hockey arena that is not being used.

Dissidents have also questioned why $370,686 was spent on travel expenses for the chief and council.

"Yes, we do have a lot of money coming into our community, but this money, or a large portion of it, is taxpayers' money," said Michael Rossignol, a band employee who received a two-week suspension for supporting the call for a new election.

"They have every right to be angry about how First Nation organizations mistreat their money."

Penashue, one of the organizers of the campaign for the new election, said life in Sheshatshiu has not been the same since the election of a new chief and council in March 2010.

"You can feel, as soon as you go in there, you can feel there's nothing happening in our community. We have an Olympic-sized arena, but it's been closed for almost a year now," he said.

"Where's the money going to?"

Penashue is the brother of Labrador MP Peter Penashue, who says that while he supports greater transparency among all First Nations, he is staying out of the current dispute.

Speedy decision sought

Max Penashue and other leaders have 10 days to file their response. A speedy decision is being sought because the election is supposed to take place in a little over two weeks.

Meanwhile, Benuen's opponents plan to use band records in their case. Documents obtained by CBC News include a letter Benuen sent on July 18 to Bank of Montreal administrators of Sheshatshiu's trust fund, with instructions to pay $20,000 each to two individuals who are not named in the letter.

As well, the administrators are told to pay Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation a sum of $50,000 in "administration fees" to cover "additional hours which includes evenings and weekends" for staff who were working on financial reports.