A northern Ontario First Nation chief has filed a lawsuit claiming $200,000 in damages from the Assembly of First Nations and its National Chief RoseAnne Archibald after she accused him of corruption.
Just days after that statement of claim was filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the Assembly of First Nations' (AFN) executive committee apologized to Chief Wilfred King of Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, a community located about 175 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. that is also known as Gull Bay First Nation.
In a letter sent on behalf of the AFN executive committee, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Regional Chief Paul Prosper absolved King of any wrongdoing and said the committee will continue to urge Archibald to apologize personally.
"The AFN Executive Committee recognizes that the National Chief's statements may have been intended to cause, and may have in fact caused, injury to your reputation," Prosper wrote in the Oct. 20 letter obtained by CBC News.
"I write to advise that the AFN Executive Committee has conducted a review of the National Chief's statements and media posts and has identified no evidence of any corrupt activities on your part."
'I welcome this lawsuit': Archibald
Archibald's legal counsel told CBC News the executive committee's move "wasn't done in the spirit of cooperation."
"I don't believe that the national chief was consulted or that this issue was discussed with her advance," Aaron Detlor said.
"It raises serious issues about how an executive committee that's supposed to include the national chief … how it continues to go about business in an exclusionary fashion."
Archibald cited King's name and the $22,500 he received for an AFN contract awarded under her predecessor, former national chief Perry Bellegarde, in a July 1 email to more than 40 chiefs entitled "URGENT & CONFIDENTIAL: proof of corruption."
The email, which CBC News also obtained, names King along with dozens of other individuals, law firms and corporations which received AFN contracts between 2020 and 2021.
"I welcome this lawsuit and look forward to a trial with Chief King as I believe that the truth will be revealed," Archibald said in a media statement sent to CBC News by her office.
"Ultimately, the First Nations-in-Assembly (Chiefs) have a right to know who is getting contracts from the AFN and why."
Archibald has not filed a statement of defence and the claim against her has yet to be contested in court.
King said his lawyer advised him Friday that Archibald has been served with the legal papers.
Detlor said he couldn't speak to the case specifically since it's before the court. He said the national chief is trying to resolve a larger, systemic issue involving transparency and accountability within the AFN.
"The details of any contract, if it's a fair and open process, should be readily available," Detlor said.
"Why is the AFN undertaking a contracting process that nobody knows anything about?"
AFN executive committee 'unequivocally apologizes'
Both King and his lawyer declined CBC's requests for interviews, pointing out that the matter is before the court.
In his statement of claim, King said there was nothing nefarious about the contract and he was never made aware of any concerns about impropriety before it expired almost four months later.
"To the best of his knowledge, it was executed transparently and in full compliance with all AFN policies and procedures," his statement of claim said.
According to King's statement of claim, Bellegarde offered King the contract after both Bellegarde and Archibald, who was Ontario regional chief at the time, attended the August 2019 grand opening of Gull Bay's Giizis Energy solar storage microgrid facility, which uses solar energy to provide clean power to the First Nation.
King claims Bellegarde asked him if he could help other First Nations develop similar energy projects.
King's contract started on Nov. 5, 2020 and ended on March 31, 2021.
Despite the AFN executive committee's apology, King is still suing Archibald and the AFN since he argues it is liable for Archibald's conduct.
King is seeking $150,000 for defamation and loss of reputation and $50,000 for punitive, aggravated and exemplary damages.
In his letter to King, Prosper said the AFN executive committee "repeatedly impressed" upon Archibald the need to apologize for her comments and to work with King in preparing a public statement to limit "any potential reputational harm" he may have experienced.
"Unfortunately, to date, the National Chief has failed to respond to the AFN Executive Committee's requests," Prosper wrote.
"Therefore, on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations and the AFN Secretariat, the AFN Executive Committee unequivocally apologizes to you and your organization for the statements made by National Chief Archibald."
Both Archibald and Prosper declined CBC's requests for interviews.
The AFN Secretariat, which is run separately from the national chief's office, also refused to comment.
AFN resolution calls for changes to contract rules
First Nations chiefs gathering for the AFN's special chiefs assembly in Ottawa next week are expected to vote on a resolution to reform the organization's contracting process.
The resolution, moved by Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayer and Squamish Nation Council Chairperson Khelsilem, would require the AFN to produce an annual analysis of its procurement activities to ensure they respect the principles of accountability, transparency and fairness.
It would direct the AFN to issue and share a quarterly report with the First Nations-in-Assembly - the chiefs who will be attending the meeting in Ottawa next week - of all contracts awarded and anyone requesting a contract.
The AFN executive committee passed a motion on Aug. 22 directing that a formal letter be drafted and addressed to the national chief instructing her to apologize to the AFN's independent contractors "who are potential claimants in slander and liable claims and formally retract her statements on social media."
The chiefs agreed at the time that if Archibald did not apologize, they would issue an apology themselves on behalf of the AFN in response to potential claims.
On Aug. 16, the AFN sent a letter notifying its insurer, the Great American Insurance Group, of potential claims against the organization after it received four letters outlining claims for defamation with the potential of litigation.
So far, King is the only one who has taken legal action.
But the AFN also received letters from three other people who were awarded AFN contracts and were named in Archibald's "proof of corruption" list.
"Regrettably, it appears that the National Chief's comments were intended to tarnish the reputations of others who have held leadership positions within the AFN or performed services for the AFN, as well as AFN staff," Prosper wrote in his letter to King.