Hall v Kwikwetlem First Nation, 2020 FC 994

The Court allowed an application for judicial review of a decision of two Kwikwetlem First Nation Councillors to remove the applicant, Chief Hall, from his elected office as Chief. At the core of Chief Hall’s removal was his disclosure of a forensic audit report in relation to mismanagement of resources, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty. The decision was procedurally unfair due to a failure to provide notice and an opportunity to be heard. It was also unreasonable in various respects, including the harshness of their use of termination as a remedy. 

Indigenous Law Centre CaseWatch Blog

The Kwikwetlem First Nation [“KFN”] is the band government of kwikwəƛ̓ əm, a people living in Coquitlam, British Columbia. The KFN adopted, by ratification, a custom election code and governance by its Chief and Council [“Election Code”]. In addition to this Election Code, there is a document in existence approved by Council but yet-unratified entitled Kwikwetlem First Nation Chief and Council Code of Ethics [“Ethics Code”].

This judicial review is for a decision [“Decision”] made by two KFN Councillors to remove the Chief [“Applicant”] from his elected office. The conflict regards the disclosure of certain Band business affairs and whether the Councillors individually or collectively can instruct the Chief on what he sees as his duties as Chief. Pursuant to the Election Code, the Chief is to carry out the business of KFN in accordance with a vision document and is the spokesperson of KFN. The Chief or any Councillor may be removed from office if two Council members vote in favour of a resolution. However, the Court notes that neither the Election Code nor the Ethics Code are models of clarity, as the lines of authority and governance are not clear.

The Applicant had run his 2019 campaign for the position of Chief on a platform of increased transparency and accountability regarding KFN’s governance and business dealings. A key part of his mandate was the engagement of forensic auditors to investigate possible mismanagement by the former Chief and his administration. There was a disclosure by the Applicant of a forensic audit report which revealed questionable conduct of certain officials and employees of the KFN including those of a former chief.

At the same time as the forensic audit, the Applicant was engaged in a dispute with the two KFN Councillors about numerous Band matters, in particular the issue of transparency of the audit results. The same day that the forensic auditors indicated that they would make a presentation reporting on the prior mismanagement of KFN, the Applicant received a letter of suspension of one week without pay alleging dishonesty, disclosure of confidential information, conflict of interest and inappropriate treatment of staff.

Upon a subsequent hearing that the Applicant attended under protest, he addressed each of the allegations in an affidavit with documents in support, answered questions and provided oral and written submissions based on the evidence provided and allegations made. He denied the allegations as being untrue, raised procedural fairness concerns including that the Councillors had predetermined the matter, and that the punishment of removal, in any event, was unjustified. After the hearing was concluded, the Councillors issued their decision to remove the Applicant from office, effective immediately.

The nature and extent of the procedural fairness applicable is dependent on the circumstances and dependent on the factors (Baker v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817). A high standard of justice is required when the right to continue in one’s profession or employment is at stake (Kane v Board of Governors of UBC, [1980] 1 SCR 1105). The Election Code is silent on this aspect of the removal provisions but procedural fairness applies in this situation (Sparvier v Cowessess Indian Band, [1993] 3 FC 142).

Compliance with procedural fairness norms “went off the rails” when the Councillors took a break during the hearing, met secretly with a witness and obtained new evidence, thereby attempting to change the hearing. The conduct of the hearing and the post-hearing do not accord with procedural fairness. On this ground alone this judicial review should be granted.

The standard of review of the Decision in respect of the merits is reasonableness (Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65). Part of the dispute between the Chief and the Councillors is the view held by the Councillors that they can dictate to the Chief, individually or collectively, outside of a Chief and Council meeting and the Band Council Resolution process [“BCR”], what he should do and how he should carry out his functions. There is nothing in the Band Council Mandate of the Election Code that speaks to that kind of control over the Chief.

At no time did the Councillors pass a BCR directing the Chief to do or refrain from doing anything, much less directing the Chief to keep the forensic audit results confidential from the community. In the Decision, the Councillors purportedly found the Applicant’s conduct contrary to s 7.3 of the Election Code. That provision contemplates events of gross misconduct, corrupt practices in connection with Council business, illegal or improper appropriation of KFN funds, corrupt election practices and so on. It is unreasonable to conclude on these facts that the Applicant committed any of these acts.

Absent a BCR, it was unreasonable to conclude that the Chief did not have at least a role as the spokesperson for the First Nation in determining what disclosure should have been made of the forensic audit results. The use of the termination remedy is disproportionately harsh and is unreasonable. The Councillors were not protecting the community from an individual engaged in corrupt practices, but instead were attacking a Chief who had a different view from theirs of what was in the best interests of the community. The Decision is quashed, and the Applicant is to be reinstated to his position as Chief and is entitled to costs.

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