Gwaii Trust’s earnings stable, annual meeting hears

  • Dec. 7, 2011 9:00 a.m.

By Alex Rinfret–Despite difficult market conditions, the Gwaii Trust fund earned $4-million in investment income during the year ended Aug. 31, almost exactly the same amount as it made the previous year, members of the public learned at the society’s annual general meeting Saturday (Dec. 3) in Port Clements. Accountant Michael Johnson of McAlpine and Co. said the results were “not bad” given ongoing global financial instability. The Gwaii Trust, which started in 1995 with $38 million from the federal government, is now worth about $64 million, according to the financial statements presented at the meeting. The fund is completely controlled by a board of islanders, who oversee the investments and distribute a portion of the interest and dividends earned by the fund to a variety of projects that benefit the islands. Directors set aside some of the earnings every year to protect the core fund from inflation. This year, the inflation protection came to $1.6 million, and brought the core fund to $54.5 million. This principal amount can never be spent, so that the fund will exist forever. Directors approved about $6 million worth of grants this year, including $5 million for projects under the Haida Parity program. The board had originally intended to pay out the Haida Parity commitments over a longer period of time, said chair Peter Lantin, but decided to accelerate the payments. That decision led to the society ending its fiscal year with a $5.2 million deficit. “It was a conscious decision to use prior year surpluses to catch up,” Mr. Johnson said. It’s not the first time the board has ended the year with a deficit, he said, with the other occasions being due to market conditions. Mr. Lantin said directors face difficult decisions throughout the year as they try to anticipate what the trust fund will earn, and what kind of expenditures the islands communities need. “It’s always a delicate balance,” he said. “At the end of the day, the board’s objective is to balance the budget.” Other challenges facing the nine-member board this year included revamping the trust’s longstanding grant programs, and nurturing a new relationship with the Tl’azt’en First Nation. The Tl’azt’en have invested $1 million with the Gwaii Trust, and may invest more in the future. That $1 million earned the Tl’azt’en $59,000 this year, and the Gwaii Trust collected $25,000 as an investment fee. In the future, administrator Errol Winter said, the Gwaii Trust may seek out more small investment partners. It’s a win-win situation: the investors gain from the Gwaii Trust’s years of experience and team of investment experts, while the Gwaii Trust gains the investment clout of additional money. Mr. Lantin urged the public to ask questions or make comments throughout the meeting, and directors did hear some opinions from the 12 members of the public who attended. Vince Collison thanked the board for its support for the Haida language over the years, and for focusing on the 1985 Lyell Island standoff in this year’s annual report. “I love the cover of your report because I think we should never forget where this started,” he said. Mr. Collison asked the board whether the Gwaii Trust holds any investments in Enbridge, the Canadian company that wants to build a pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat to carry tar sands oil to China. Mr. Lantin answered that board members had also been concerned about this issue, and the trust has finally managed to extricate itself from Enbridge. It wasn’t easy. Mr. Lantin said the board decided by consensus last year that it did not want any money invested in Enbridge. It turned out that it did not hold any Enbridge shares directly, but was part of a pooled fund with hundreds of other investors that had investments in the company. Money managers initially told the board it would be impossible to get out, but Mr. Lantin said the board refused to accept this answer. “To make a long story short, the board was very adamant that we have no holdings,” he said. “We have zero Enbridge holdings as of today.” Greg Martin told the board that it should reconsider its Christmas allocation program, which hands out $10,000 to each of the six islands communities for Christmas-related spending. The program is not truly vital when there are so many other needs, he said. “I know this is not going to be popular, you can call me Greg the Grinch,” he said. “But I would humbly suggest taking a large portion of that and putting it in the food banks” or other social areas. Mr. Lantin thanked Mr. Martin for the suggestion. The board has directed more money to the local food banks and other food programs over the past year, he said, and will also consider Mr. Martin’s comments. Arnie Bellis made several observations about the Gwaii Trust, its beginnings and its evolution over the years. He told the board that requiring people to write proposals to get grants is a hurdle for many who could really benefit. “A lot of people have reading and writing challenges, they don’t write proposals,” he said. “The people that get rewarded the most are the proposal writers.” Mr. Bellis also said the Gwaii Trust should publicize some its decisions more, particularly ones that keep property owners’ taxes down. For example, the trust contributed towards the islands landfill site, he said, yet many property owners have no idea how they benefitted from this decision. Mr. Lantin thanked Mr. Bellis for his comments and reflected on the unique role the Gwaii Trust plays on the islands. The board is the only one that operates by consensus, is island-wide, and has equal representation from the Haida and non-Haida communities. It is the only body that comes close to providing anything like islands-wide governance, he said. The meeting wrapped up with the appointment of four directors for the next two years: Shelley Sansome for Graham Island South, Fran Redick for Graham Island North, John T. Jones for Old Massett and James Cowpar for Skidegate. Directors with another year left in their terms are Percy Crosby and Trevor Russ for the Haida Nation, Jim Abbott for Graham Island Central and Kristi Schmitz for Moresby Island. Mr. Lantin was appointed chair by the Haida Nation two years ago, and has one year left in his term.

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