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Debt blamed for paycheque dispute

Reserve fires back after teachers' union demands feds step in

Sandy Bay First Nation Chief Russell Beaulieu admits the band has missed teachers' pay periods in the past.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Sandy Bay First Nation Chief Russell Beaulieu admits the band has missed teachers' pay periods in the past.

Sandy Bay First Nation, which has been accused of not paying its teachers, is rejecting help from Ottawa to manage its books.

Sandy Bay Chief Russell Beaulieu held a news conference in Winnipeg on Wednesday to lash out at the Manitoba Teachers' Society (MTS) for its demand Tuesday that Ottawa place the reserve north of Brandon under third-party management.

"I'm here to point fingers," said Beaulieu, who said his council inherited a $19-million debt from the previous administration and has already paid off $6 million.

"We admit there have been sporadic paydays when we've missed one," Beaulieu said, but insisted teachers' earnings are up to date and they'll get their pay due this Friday.

Beaulieu did acknowledge, however, the band has not paid its contribution to teachers' benefits, nor has it forwarded the teachers' contributions to the Canada Revenue Agency for 2013 and 2014, though it has caught up on 2012 non-payments his council inherited.

"These are debts we have inherited," he said.

He said the band sold 10 houses in Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg to meet its last three payrolls. The houses were originally intended 25 years ago for band members living off-reserve, but have been rented out for many years, the chief said.

Beaulieu said Sandy Bay has laid off 23 employees to help pay down the debt and councillors have trimmed their salaries 15 per cent.

He said Sandy Bay's debt is currently $13 million.

Beaulieu refused to say what the band's annual budget is, and what percentage of revenue the debt represents.

He said after Sandy Bay covers payroll and its social services costs, there isn't much left.

Beaulieu could not say how the band had run up $19 million in debt, except for several millions of dollars awarded for unjust dismissals to employees let go by the previous administration.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister Bernard Valcourt issued a statement Wednesday but didn't mention third-party management.

Valcourt said teachers would be paid, but did not say if they would be paid on time and said nothing about teachers' benefits. Ottawa assured students they would receive their education -- which was never in doubt, since the Manitoba Teachers' Society has said teachers would never withdraw their services during the school year.

The Manitoba Teachers' Society said the 55 teachers on the reserve are owed at least $737,000. It also alleges conditions at the school are deplorable, with broken fire alarms and bathrooms without toilet paper.

Sandy Bay education director George Beaulieu slammed MTS for "having painted a bad picture of Sandy Bay. It's a very excellent school" that does not have the deterioration and maintenance problems the union claims, he said.

"We're on track for a (record) 50 graduates this year," said George Beaulieu, who denied MTS claims the reserve's teachers have a morale problem.

The education director said Ottawa's funding failed to cover two school buses the band operates, and funding this year was for 100 students fewer than the 1,100 the band says are enrolled.

Russell Beaulieu said third-party management would force widespread layoffs in the community at a time when the band is close to getting a repayment and financial plan finalized, with the help of new professional advisers.

The band's lawyer, Norman Boudreau, said third-party management would be disastrous, leading to significant job losses to cut costs: "Third-party management for First Nations is a kiss of death.

"What about all the other employees? The economy will crash," Boudreau said. "MTS is infringing on (the band council's) constitutional right to self-governance."

MTS president Paul Olson stood firm Wednesday -- it's about education funding going to education, not self-governance, he said. "We don't have any other option. They are the current government -- they have the responsibility to deal with it," he said.

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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