The province's top aboriginal leader wonders if the Selinger government had a "hidden agenda" when it named a senior government bureaucrat this week to oversee the Southern First Nations Network of Care (Southern Authority).
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Grand Chief Derek Nepinak accused the government and the authority Friday of colluding to "create a crisis" so a provincially appointed administrator could take over the authority, which supervises 10 aboriginal child and family services agencies.
The AMC, under provincial law, is tasked with naming the authority's board of directors.
On Thursday, Family Services and Labour Minister Jennifer Howard appointed her deputy minister, Jeff Parr, to serve in place of the organization's board. She said she took the action after receiving a letter from the authority's chief executive officer, Elsie Flette, who expressed concern that the lack of a functioning board was jeopardizing the care of children.
As of Friday, the authority had only one director, two below the minimum of three under its bylaws. The situation arose due to a failure to replace board members as their terms expired.
The AMC said it named three qualified people more than a year ago to replace retiring board members. But the Southern Authority has yet to accept them, saying they were still being vetted.
Nepinak said both Howard and Premier Greg Selinger have known since Oct. 1 about the governance problems at the Southern Authority. But they've done nothing about it.
The AMC has pleaded with Howard to use her ministerial power to ensure pending board members it appointed were recognized by the authority and could take their rightful place on its board. But Nepinak said Howard failed to act.
"Her ear is not turned to the (aboriginal) leadership of Manitoba," Nepinak said of Howard, adding that she has "undermined the entire purpose of AJI-CWI (Aboriginal Justice Inquiry Child Welfare Initiative)," which sought to have First Nations and Métis communities deliver their own child welfare services.
Two years ago, the AMC tried to name five chiefs to the board of the Southern Authority, but was thwarted when the authority took it to court. The authority said its bylaws forbade the appointment of chiefs and band councillors.
The AMC later relented, naming Cora Morgan, Ivy Chaske and Glen Cochrane to the Southern Authority board. "These are three highly qualified responsible citizens from the First Nations community that have no issues in terms of their qualifications," Nepinak said Friday.
Through a spokesman, Howard defended her action to name an administrator.
"The safety of Manitoba's children is our No. 1 priority and we will not allow a dispute regarding board appointments to get in the way of fulfilling that mandate," the spokesman said in a statement to the Free Press.
The process of appointing board members is something to be worked out between the authority and the AMC, the spokesman said, adding the minister will meet with both parties.