No boundaries, no accountability: Northern Village of Pinehouse & Kineepik Metis Local Inc.

Earlier this year a rock-solid forensic audit report for Pinehouse village finances in 2018 was submitted by Grant Thornton LLP to Saskatchewan’s Minister of Government Relations.  It is full of very troubling discoveries about how the village has been (mis)managed, and it leaves us wondering how the Mayor, Council and Adminstrator could get away with this level of incompetence.  In general terms, Grant Thornton pointed out (p. 10) that only 15% of payments to elected village officials in 2018 were compliant with the law.  Even more disturbing, none of the payments to outside entities related to village officials that year were compliant.

And who would those “outside entities related to village officials” be?  One of the main ones identified in the audit report is Kineepik Metis Local Inc. (KMLI), an organization that is part of everyday conversation in Pinehouse, yet whose inner operations are virtually unknown beyond the inner circle of community leadership.  The Grant Thornton forensic audit report indicates (p. 30) that,

We identified payments to Kineepik Metis Local Inc. during the Period of Review [2018] totalling $164,795. Mike Natomagan is the current President of Kineepik Metis Local Inc. and Conrad Misponas is the Secretary-Treasurer. We note that these relationships were not disclosed on the Public Disclosure Statements that were provided to us for Mike Natomagan and Conrad Misponas . This is non-compliant with Section 160 of the NMA [Northern Municipalities Act].

The reason for the $164,795 payments to Kineepik Metis Local is still unknown.  A thorough search through the Village Council minutes shows no prior discussion or approval.  The auditors go on to say, “we note that payments were not properly authorized as there were no approval signatures on the payment vouchers. We also note that Mike Natomagan was one of the signatories on the cheques written to this entity that he is directly related to.”  So we have the mayor signing cheques to KMLI, a non-profit corporation of which he is president, with no public disclosure as to why.

Also, we do not know if the amounts paid to KMLI in 2018 follow similar payments in 2016 or 2017, or indeed if payments continued afterwards.  How many of these payments have been made?  At this point, it is all a mystery.  But we do know that another very large “donation” by the Village to KMLI had been made as long ago as 2012.  That time, Village Council did give prior approval.  In the council minutes for 9 March 2012, we find:

M-50-12 

Misponas: That $80,080.97 is outstanding to the mapping project and will be donated to Kineepik Metis Local for the final payment.  CARRIED.

The mapping project was undertaken just prior to the signing of the collaboration agreement with Cameco and Areva uranium mining companies on 12 December 2012.  The project provided documentation for negotiation of Metis traditional land use rights to make way for expansion of mining operations north of the village.  Apparently Kineepik did not have enough money to pay for the mapping project; the Village kindly helped out, even though a gift in that amount was probably illegal.

What is just as remarkable here is that, at the time he made the motion for this payment in Council, Conrad Misponas was a director of Kineepik Metis Local Inc., and Mayor Mike was president.  There is no indication that Mike recused himself — and quite obviously Conrad did not.  It did not seem to occur to either of them that they were in a conflict of interest.

Conflict of interest has become a much bigger issue recently as a result of wider abuses in municipal governance in Saskatchewan.   The Northern Municipalities Act was amended in 2015 to make the rules much stricter.  But even back in 2012, “financial interest” was already a serious consideration. Amendments to the law now dictate that all members of municipal councils must disclose such situations and recuse themselves from discussion and votes. The Act also stipulates that all members of council need to complete a disclosure statement listing all their outside business and organizational connections, something that Mayor Natomagan and Councilor Misponas had failed to do.

There are other instances where Kineepik interests have been discussed in Village Council, but where Mayor Natomagan and/or Councilor Misponas did not disclose their conflicts of interest and failed to recuse themselves as was proper. As examples:

On 11 July 2019, Village Council discussed “PBN Distribution Policy” where Pinehouse Business North’s profits or proceeds arising from the collaboration agreement with Cameco might be shared with Kineepik Metis Local, and where the difficulties of such a “donation” were pointed out.  There was even discussion as to whether KMLI might purchase PBN from the Village “if the value is fair.”  Legal advice was sought.  Incidentally, neither Conrad Misponas (who chaired that meeting) nor Mike Natomagan (who participated via phone) recused themselves from the discussion.  Apparently the Mayor was quite frustrated that he could not move this agenda item forward unhindered by legal (or ethical) considerations.

Conrad Misponas stepped down from the KMLI board shortly after that meeting, perhaps because questions were being asked about his incomplete public disclosure statement in the context of the Vancise Inquiry.  ISC’s corporate registrar was advised of his resignation on 15 August 2019.

Any questions that might have arisen about conflict of interest did not convince Mayor Mike Natomagan to change his status.  He was still firmly in charge as Kineepik’s president when Village Council revisited the relationship of Kineepik Metis Local to the Village and PBN at the Council meeting on 6 November 2019.  And a few months later, in Council minutes for 31 March 2020, we find:

M-033-20

Pam Woods: That the Northern Village of Pinehouse approves the amendment to the CA (collaboration agreement). Kineepik Metis Local (KML) will receive the labour services portion of the CA negotiated with Cameco. CARRIED

Again, Mayor Mike did not recuse himself, even though he was in the chair at that Council meeting, and even though transferring labour services from Pinehouse Business North to Kineepik Metis Local Inc. has to be considered a direct financial benefit of undetermined value in Kineepik’s favour.

Although not confirmed, there is talk in Pinehouse that the Village recreation program has recently been transferred over to Kineepik.  We can only guess at the reasons behind this favouritism towards Kineepik, but Mayor Mike Natomagan’s continued conflict of interest only adds “fuel to the fire” of speculation.

As we all know, there has been a long and honoured presence of Metis activity at Pinehouse.  Metis Nation – Saskatchewan (MNS) acknowledged Pinehouse Lake Metis Local #9 several decades ago.  Then in 2007 Kineepik Metis Local Inc. was registered as a non-profit corporation in Saskatchewan for the purposes of “Métis community programs and services.”  Although KMLI often inserts “#9” in parentheses after its name in legal documents, that is not in fact part of its official name.  Yet, it seems that MNS has accepted or overlooked the discrepancy.  In two directories we found (2013 and 2017) Mike Natomagan is acknowledged as president of Metis Local #9, just as he is also reported to be president of Kineepik Metis Local Inc. in annual returns to the ISC corporate registrar.  In its constitution, MNS allows for its locals to also be separately incorporated.  Mike was first elected president in 2010, after he became Pinehouse mayor, and Deputy Mayor Conrad Misponas was on the KMLI board from 2009 to 2019.

In 2014, Kineepik Development Corporation was registered as a business by ISC Corporate Registry.  Its sole shareholder was Kineepik Metis Local Inc.  Both Mike Natomagan and Conrad Misponas were designated officers.  That registration has since lapsed, but could be restored at any time.

The relationship between KMLI and Northern Village of Pinehouse became much closer (and could be described as conjoined) when both signed onto a collaboration agreement between the two entities (“Pinehouse”) and Cameco/Areva on 12 December 2012.  That ended over 2½  years of closed-door negotiations that most in the community heard about only weeks before the final agreement was signed.  The rushed process to prevent public push-back created a media storm at the time, including a notable national radio interview on CBC’s “As it Happens.”

In the collaboration agreement, Kineepik Metis Local Inc. claims that it is “a representative organization of Métis peoples who are residents of Pinehouse and assert Aboriginal Rights” (p.1), and also that “Kineepik, and not any other Person, is the proper representative of the Aboriginal Rights of its Members and is entitled to enter into this Agreement on behalf of all of its Members” (p. 12).

Tremendous financial benefits have accrued to the community of Pinehouse generally, and to Kineepik Metis Local Inc. directly, as a result of the collaboration agreement, but many aspects of the Metis Local’s governance remain a mystery.  Who actually belongs to KMLI has always been a source of contention locally.  Only rarely has there ever been a publicly announced meeting for all Metis in Pinehouse to take part in collective decision-making and election of officers.  To this day most local residents would be at a loss to describe the actual tangible benefits they as individuals enjoy arising from their tenuous Kineepik affiliation.

So the symbiosis between Kineepik Metis Local Inc. and the Northern Village of Pinehouse, personified in the person of Mike Natomagan, president of the one and mayor of the other, ought to be scrutinized very carefully.  There is no doubt that this fact of life often puts him in a conflict of interest, one that he does not want to acknowledge.  But the upcoming village election is the best time to ask the all-important questions. When do the citizens of Pinehouse feel the intertwined interests of the two entities are working to everyone’s benefit?  And when does the Mayor and Council favouring  Kineepik Metis Local Inc. not necessarily serve the community as a whole?  More transparency, more accountability will make establishing those boundaries much, much easier.