Andru McCracken, Editor

By Andru McCracken, EDITOR

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in trouble about the WE charity scandal, there’s a scenario closer to home that deserves scrutiny: the Valemount Community Forest’s audited financial statements show $4 million in contracts were awarded in 2019 to board directors and their relatives. Are the WE charges simply political lunacy, our should our community forest take heed?

Unlike Trudeau’s political detractors, I don’t mean to impugn the reputations of the board directors or seek their resignation. A sudden resignation of members of the board who are in conflict would be catastrophic. The community forest is currently in a good place. I believe that the directors of the community forest, my friends and neighbours, do their work in good faith.

I also believe that conflicts of interest, where they absolutely must take place, should be managed with extreme care. Even if the people in conflict are good people.

The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson puts the WE Charity scandal nicely into a few sentences in his opinion piece published July 20:

“WE Charity, which paid Mr. Trudeau’s family members hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and gave Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s child a job, pushed for and landed a cushy contract that other charities never got to bid on.” – from For Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, new developments coalesce to threaten their power.

This scandal is not about WE operations. No one is alleging that the group is not doing what it said it would do or doing it well. Rather, the question lies with those in power: have they used their position – in good faith or not – to enrich themselves and their families?

In his case, Justin Trudeau should step down immediately. It is clear no one in his network of staff and colleagues saw this scandal coming and to me this is proof that his administration and those who work in it are inept, if not willfully blind. If he doesn’t step down as Liberal leader, it is certainly time to put some other party’s fools into office.

Closer to home

In the community forest’s audited financial statements, four “related parties” received contracts totalling more than $4 million. This was money paid to companies owned by directors as well as a company owned by a spouse of a director. If conflict is an actual problem, this is much worse than the WE scandal.

The financial documents do not go into detail about how contracts are awarded. Was the work publicly tendered?

What space is made for new contractors, people who are just getting into logging… you know, the future?

Furthermore, could a doozy of a conflict of interest have negative consequences for the village? The Village of Valemount is, after all, one of the partners and actively appoints the directors.

When I asked Mayor Owen Torgerson about the related party transactions and their potential to put the Village’s financial interests in harm’s way, he forwarded my concerns to the manager of Valemount Community Forest. This was in no way reassuring.

What I heard from manager Craig Pryor was that the company set up a limited partnership and removed all Village staff and councilors from the board and began operating at arms length from the Village. By doing so, they limit liability to the village and if the community forest goes down in a firestorm, they won’t take the village with them.

That’s good, but what would it mean for the community forest if it was sued by, for example, another qualified contractor who didn’t get the work because a board member did?

It’s great that the Valemount Community Forest is keeping work local, but this is too local. The board appears to be writing their own contracts.

The Valemount Community Forest’s initial reaction to the Goat’s inquiry was to ask back, ‘but aren’t we doing good work?’

Truth be told, the Valemount Community Forest and the Valemount Industrial Park are doing great work. There is no question that the new mill has the potential to be a stroke of genius for our community and a massive contributor to the economy. The board is doing good work.

And that’s the problem: the board is doing the work.

So what’s the answer? To start, the Valemount Community Forest must be open to new board members – especially those not currently working in forestry. If they need to, they could keep the old board as a technical advisory committee and develop a new governance board that isn’t involved in the minutiae of operations. The governance board would be able to award contracts to the folks that merit the work.

If the board is going to get high functioning thoughtful board members they may have to go so far as to mentor upcomers. Preferably a few at a time. They have had 13 years to recruit and train new board members and yet the board has remained essentially the same as when it was inaugurated. This can’t go on indefinitely. People retire. Die.

Life goes on. Like the seasons, board members change… There must be term limits.

The growth of conflict of interest is a terrible oversight, akin to the decadence and hubris that has our federal politicos in trouble. The ineffable Justin Trudeau needs someone in the room to call out loudly, “What are you thinking?” Closer to home our own board of the Valemount Community Forest needs the same.

See the Valemount Community Forest’s response.