A debate about changing the Gwaii Trust Society’s representative structure is taking a difficult turn.
In August, voters in Tlell and Port Clements elected a new Gwaii Trust director for Graham Island Central.
But at a Gwaii Trust board meeting on Sept. 6, her appointment to the board was blocked by the director for Area E (Sandspit and South Moresby).
At issue is a structural change that Masset and Port Clements councillors are trying to force Gwaii Trust to make before Nov. 28 — the legal deadline when all of B.C.’s non-profit societies have to update their constitutions and bylaws.
As the Observer reported in July, the change would basically see Gwaii Trust move away from having geographically-organized directors.
Right now, three Gwaii Trust directors represent North, Central, and South Graham Island, plus one for Area E (Sandspit and South Moresby).
Instead, Masset and Port Clements councillors are pushing to have Gwaii Trust directors for the three incorporated villages — Masset, Port Clements, Queen Charlotte — and one for the whole regional district (Areas D and E). The director positions for Old Massett, Skidegate, CHN-Old Massett and CHN-Skidegate would remain the same.
Supporters say the change is simpler, mirrors the way islanders already elect local governments, and would reduce tension over shared funding between the municipalities and areas such as Tow Hill, Tlell, Lawn Hill, and Miller Creek.
However, the move would also mean that Sandspit would cease to have its own seat at the Gwaii Trust table. Port Clements, which has a similar population, would gain one.
Gwaii Trust Chair James Cowpar was unavailable to comment by the Observer deadline, and other directors either did not return calls or directed all questions to Cowpar.
Masset Mayor Andrew Merilees said the fact that the Gwaii Trust board failed to directly seat the newly elected director for Tlell and Port Clements on Sept. 6 is totally undemocratic. In its fall newsletter, Gwaii Trust’s director for Graham Island Central is listed as “nominated for appointment.”
“It’s disgraceful,” said Merilees.
“That’s not how Gwaii Trust was supposed to run.”
Masset councillors have since sent a letter to Gwaii Trust alleging that by failing to formally appoint the newly elected Graham Island Central director on Sept. 6, the society broke its own bylaws.
While Merilees acknowledges that Sandspit would lose its own say under the proposed changes, he said it would be better for the islands as a whole, and in particular for people living in outlying areas like Tow Hill and Tlell.
“The programs stay the same, the money stays the same,” he said. “The only thing that changes is what areas the directors are specifically representing.”
Masset is not alone in demanding that Gwaii Trust change the director structure when it revises its bylaws and constitution. Port Clements council also passed a motion requiring the newly elected director for Graham Island Central to support the move.
“We are fully behind Masset, and fully behind the re-structuring of Gwaii Trust,” said Port Clements Mayor Urs Thomas.
“The political structure is already that way, and I think it will take tension out,” Thomas said, noting that he didn’t think it would mean any less Gwaii Trust funding for Sandspit.
“They’re changes, but I think they’re good changes,” he said.
Queen Charlotte councillors have said there is merit in discussing the changes proposed by Masset council, but they would like more time to review them and consult the public.
To pass the new Gwaii Trust bylaws requires approval from three of the four Haida and three of the four civic communities that the directors represent.
If the directors for Graham Island North and Central continue to insist on the change, but the directors for Graham Island South and Area E do not, the Gwaii Trust board will likely be deadlocked, unable to pass its new bylaws by the Nov. 28 deadline.
Societies that fail the deadline are at some risk of dissolving, though a staffer with B.C.’s societies registry said they would likely take a few months to try and bring such societies into compliance.
Like all B.C. societies, Gwaii Trust was told in November 2016 that it would have two years to revise its constitution and bylaws to meet the province’s new Societies Act. Most of the required changes involve new conflict-of-interest rules for directors.
But since the Gwaii Trust had not made any major changes to its bylaws since its founding in 1994, the directors thought it was a good time to “fully examine their governing documents for relevance and usefulness.”
The directors met a governance consultant last May and then set up a task force last September. The task force met seven times over nine months to review the bylaws line-by-line. After consulting a lawyer, Gwaii Trust’s suggested changes went to Masset and other communities in July.
Days later, Masset council replied by formally requesting the directors change.
Merilees said Masset council has actually been requesting the change for years, but Gwaii Trust hasn’t taken it seriously.
“Our experience in the past with Gwaii Trust is that they say something, and then they just go away and do whatever they want,” he said.
“We are not interested in ratifying these bylaws without the changes. So they need to happen.”
Speaking about what it means for Sandspit, Merilees said he recognizes they would have less of a say under the new structure.
“I will recognize that Sandspit is not as well off,” he said. “They’re going to have to share their representative with all of the regional district.
But in the long run, it’s much better for the islands.”