Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre is in turmoil after a new board of directors suspended its two top administrators and placed them under investigation.
The sudden suspensions have sent shockwaves through Montreal’s 50,000-strong Native community.
The investigation was announced in a terse, two-paragraph communiqué sent out by the centre on Oct. 31, just 11 days after the Oct. 20 annual general meeting at which the new board was elected.
Placed on “administrative suspension” are two of the centre’s longest-serving employees, executive director Ida LaBillois-Montour and the assistant executive director, Josianne Wanono.
LaBillois-Montour has worked at the centre 18 years, 14 of them as executive director. Wanono has also been in her job 14 years. They were both suspended with pay for the duration of the investigation.
The inquiry is being conducted by Roger Obonsawin and Irwin Liuba, both of Obonsawin Liuba Consulting Inc.
Centre officials were tight-lipped about what they are hoping to uncover, refusing to respond to any questions from The Nation.
Several sources said the investigation revolves around complaints from three individuals associated with the centre.
On Nov. 8, the centre issued another statement announcing a special assembly on Nov. 21 to discuss the affair. A petition had circulated calling for the assembly.
“I’m still in shock,” said LaBillois-Montour. “I’m telling you, I didn’t do anything. My whole life was spent in that place. We worked so hard.”
LaBillois-Montour said she is confused about why she was suspended, speculating that some of the new board members may be motivated by “revenge.”
She said some are former disgruntled employees of the centre who may be harbouring a grudge against her or Wanono.
She said her main worry is that the centre will have a hard time getting grant agencies to keep giving much-needed funds while the centre is in turmoil.
“The major threat is that we will lose the centre,” LaBillois-Montour said. “Nobody’s going to want to touch us. They’re not going to want to give us money now.”
The suspensions have left the Native community bitterly divided and prompted a wave of resignations at the centre.
Two of the centre’s board members resigned last week — Mary Niquanicappo of Whapmagoostui and Nakuset, also known as Marcy Shapiro.
Niquanicappo will stay on as secretary of the centre’s youth council (see Letters, page 21).
As well, a member of the centre’s advisory board, Arnold Saulteaux, has resigned from his position after he was reportedly threatened by one of the new board members, Serge Watso.
The Nov. 21 assembly promises to be heated. The agenda items include the alleged threat against Saulteaux, “the abuse of power on the part of board members” and “the abuse of power which was used in the calling of an investigation without prior approval from voting members.”
In the Oct. 20 board election, most of the previous board of directors was replaced by a rival group of candidates.
Among those voted out was Nation editor William Nicholls, who was president of the board.
In an interview, Nicholls said he was “surprised that these allegations came up so suddenly. None of these allegations were ever brought to the previous board, and we were pretty accessible. To my knowledge, there has been no record of financial mismanagement at the friendship centre, ever.”
Another source close to the situation said the upheaval “has really affected the community and different Native organizations. It’s hard not to talk about it.”
The source agreed that the new board never had a mandate from the community to suspend its administrators, and called the sudden move “a vendetta.”
“I don’t know what’s happening because we weren’t informed,” she said.
The source also said some of the new
board members are “disgruntled employees,” and she called the new board “very biased.”
She expressed sorrow over the treatment of LaBillois-Montour and Wanono.
“This is not our way. They don’t deserve it,” she said.
Natalie Lloyd, the newly elected president of the centre’s board, refused to make any comments. She said a statement will be issued “in a few weeks” when the investigation is complete.
Deborah Cooper, the centre’s acting executive director, would not say whether the Nov. 21 assembly is open to the public. In fact, she said on Nov. 7 she hadn’t even heard of the assembly: “This is the first time I’m hearing of this.”
Serge Watso, the centre’s newly elected secretary, also refused to confirm that an assembly will be held Nov. 21. “You’re giving me news,” he said.
Watso also refused to comment on the threat against Saulteaux, the turmoil at the centre, or anything else.
For example, when asked to confirm that he used to work for the RCMP -where he was employed as an undercover drug-squad officer — Watso replied, “I have no comment.”