Gwaii Trust’s work very special, says auditor

  • Dec. 19, 2005 6:00 p.m.

By Alex Rinfret–The Gwaii Trust Society has completed another successful year, spending almost $6-million – mainly on projects on the islands – and ending up with a $1-million surplus, the public heard at the society’s annual general meeting Saturday (Dec. 17) in Sandspit.
Auditor Michael Johnson, an accountant at McAlpine and Co, said the fund is healthy and well-managed, with relatively low administrative expenses.
“The work you’re doing here is very special,” Mr. Johnson said. “Apart from being managed well financially, we continue to be impressed by the whole idea of the trust and what it’s doing for the islands.”
Investment income for the year ended Aug. 31, 2005, jumped dramatically, rising to $7-million from $4.4-million the year before. The reason for the increase is mainly that the board decided to sell some of its investments in order to have money to put into US and foreign markets, Mr. Johnson said. The investments were sold for more than the fund managers bought them for, and this gain forms a large part of the increased income.
“Even without that happening, the markets were better this year than last year,” he added.
BC legislation previously prohibited the Gwaii Trust from investing in US and foreign markets, but the BC Trustee Act has been changed to allow such investments, chair Miles Richardson said. The board has not yet decided to invest outside of Canada, but will probably do so in the new year, he said.
From its income of $7-million, the board spent $272,000 on investment management and $398,000 on administration (including wages and benefits for two employees, honoraria for board members and other expenses like rent and travel). Directors also added $1.2-million to the core fund to protect it from inflation, as they are required to do every year. The core fund – the amount which will never be spent – now stands at $48-million.
That left $5.1-million available for grants, and the board allocated just over $4-million, leaving it with a surplus of just over $1-million.
Mr. Johnson said it is difficult to predict exactly how much revenue the fund will generate over the year, which led to the surplus. The surplus will eventually be spent on projects, he said, and does not expose the Gwaii Trust to a tax liability.
Mr. Richardson gave updates on two of the board’s longstanding projects: repatriating the $24-million South Moresby Forest Replacement Account from federal and provincial control, and getting broadband internet service to the islands.
On the broadband front, the news was good. Mr. Richardson said negotiations are ongoing with the province, Telus and Navigata/Alcatel. Although the process has been delayed, he said he expects that infrastructure and services should be in place by April, and absolutely no later than this summer.
Bringing the SMFRA money under islands control was well within the board’s grasp, but much hard work was swept away when the federal election was called in late November, Mr. Richardson said.
“If the election hadn’t been called, that money would have been in our hands by January,” he said.
The BC government has done everything it can to make the transfer happen, Mr. Richardson said. The hold-up has been in Ottawa, with approval needed from Treasury Board and the Department of Natural Resources.
Officials have said they support the move, but hadn’t signed off on the dotted line when the election was called, which threw everything into limbo, Mr. Richardson explained.
The Gwaii Trust currently has an arrangement with the provincial government to administer the fund and hand out money for projects, as an interim step. Islanders have also developed a Gwaii Forest Fund constitution and bylaws in readiness for the day when the money is handed over.
Mr. Richardson also gave an update on the new business plan which the board is working on. Public consultation sessions were held last month, and the board will be adopting its new five-year plan by the spring, so it can be implemented for the beginning of the new fiscal year in September, he said.
A couple of members of the public urged the board to allow groups to apply for operational funds. The current business plan doesn’t allow groups to apply for operating costs, only for money for specific projects.
Danny Robertson and Greg Martin both said that being able to access operational funds could make a huge difference for tiny local organizations.
Director Warren Foster said the board has always been reluctant to give grants for operating costs because if these grants were renewed year after year it would tie up a big portion of the money available, leaving much less for other projects.
“The board has been determined not to provide core funding but the board is also open minded, so make your case,” Mr. Richardson told them, noting that the board is currently in the middle of planning for its next five year cycle, so the time is right.
The meeting was not without controversy, with one Sandspit resident demanding to hear from the four non-Haida directors why they had supported a decision to set up a Haida Parity Fund. The program will direct $12-million to Haida communities over the next 15 years.
“It made me angry,” said Doug Gould, adding that he could not understand why the non-Haida directors would support a program open only to Haida applicants.
Directors made the decision in November, after many years of wrangling over the way the federal government had paid for a harbour in Sandspit and two visitor info centres in Sandspit and Queen Charlotte at the same time it contributed the money for the Gwaii Trust.
Mr. Gould said he has two letters from the federal Department of Western Economic Diversification stating that the Sandspit harbour was funded completely separately from the Gwaii Trust. (In 1994, after years of negotiations based on promises made in the South Moresby Agreement, the federal government gave Sandspit $10-million to build a harbour and the Gwaii Trust Interim Planning Society $38.2-million for the Gwaii Trust. Parks Canada spent $2.9-million on the two visitor info centres.)
In Mr. Gould’s version, Sandspit has suffered because of the creation of Gwaii Haanas national park reserve, and the Haida Parity Fund is now rewarding “people who broke the law at Lyell Island” at the expense of his community.
“We lost jobs,” he said. “We had a school with 180 kids and we were looking at expanding. Now we have 40 students and we’re threatened with closure.”
Central Graham Island director Delina Petit Pas, North Island director Ian Hetman and Sandspit director Warren Foster all responded to Mr. Gould’s concerns. Ms Petit Pas said the federal government of the day had only consulted with Sandspit residents rather than all islanders, which had led to the promise of a harbour for Sandspit.
“No one else was consulted and people felt slighted,” she said, adding that settling the issue has allowed the board to move forward, and that the decision is supported by a majority of islanders.
Mr. Hetman said he had changed his mind about the issue after hearing that the Council of the Haida Nation had been concerned about the parity issue from the beginning, but put those concerns on hold because it didn’t want to threaten the delicate negotiations which led to the creation of the Gwaii Trust.
Mr. Foster said there are many different versions of the story about why and how the money was promised and spent, and in the end, none of it really matters. What matters, he said, is that the longstanding issue was interfering with the board’s ability to work together.
“I think we’ve done the right thing, and I’ll stand up in front of anybody and say that,” he said, adding that he has discussed the issue many times with Mr. Gould. “The benefits far outweigh any opportunity to keep fighting.”
The $12-million parity fund will be spent on the islands and will benefit all of us in one way or another, he said.
The meeting ended with Skidegate director Willard Wilson letting the islands know that Skidegate wants to cooperate with Queen Charlotte, Skidegate Landing and Sandspit to build a swimming pool and skating rink for the south end.
“It’s time for our four communities to start working together and get these two projects built,” he said, adding that they’ve been on Skidegate’s wish list for 25 years or so. “I think it’s time in our history we started working together to reach our goals.”