CANADA

BOSS OF THE NORTH

STEVIE CAMERON March 28 1994
CANADA

BOSS OF THE NORTH

STEVIE CAMERON March 28 1994

BOSS OF THE NORTH

CANADA

STEVIE CAMERON

Anyone driving along Lakeshore Drive in Beaconsfield, Que., just west of Montreal, knows they’re going through some of the priciest real estate in Canada. The houses sprawl on large, well-groomed lots and BMWs, Jeep Cherokees and Volvo wagons clutter the driveways.

And the most exclusive homes are on the south side of the road, right on Lac St-Louis. Liberal senator and Inuit businessman Charlie Watt lives on the south side, on the water, in a grand stone house with beautifully landscaped grounds, but he says the view gives him no pleasure. All he can think of is how polluted the water is and how he would prefer to be dropping a line in a clean lake at one of his family’s five hunting camps in northern Quebec. “I’m just a humble hunter,” he says.

Senator Charlie Watt faces critics over his handling oí the James Bay deal

Watt, 49, is also the most powerful member of the Inuit community of northern Quebec and is facing growing discontent among his own people for a high-flying lifestyle, controversial deal-making on the $13.3-billion Great Whale hydroelectric project and for constructing a network of business and political interests. As the president of Makivik, the corporation that administers $90 million given to the Inuit by the federal and Quebec governments under the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Watt oversees the political, economic and social welfare structures of the 7,700 Inuit in 14 remote northern communities. This week, Watt, who won his last three-year term in 1991, will be in the far northern town of Salluit for Makivik’s annual general meeting and presidential election.

While challenges to his authority are rare, there have been some. At last year’s annual general meeting, after a few Inuit discovered that Makivik had paid $912,000 in 1992 for a house for Watt in Beaconsfield, others angrily raised the issue. Watt was furious. “The discussion didn’t go very far,” he told Maclean’s in an interview. “We cut it off very quickly. It should have been raised behind closed

doors.” The house is a good investment, he explained: “I’m just living in it I’m saving money for the corporation. If I had to rent here it would just be money down the drain.” And last September, flight attendants on First Air, a Makivik-owned airline, who make an average of $23,000 a year and had not had a raise since 1989, picketed Watt’s Ottawa offices, demanding a new contract. They were unsuccessful.

Another challenge is coming this week from his brother-in-law, Simeunie Nalukturuk, the former mayor of the northern town of Inukjuak and Watt’s opponent in the election. “He’s running against me for reasons of a personal nature,” Watt said, explaining that Nalukturuk once worked as Makivik’s corporate secretary. “I hired him for the purpose of helping him out. But we had to let him go.”

Nalukturuk, 40, an adviser to Inuit communities and a freelance translator, refused to comment on Watt’s allegations. All he would say is that Watt is too busy as a senator and businessman to look after Inuit interests properly. “The traditional Inuit values are eroding every day,” Nalukturuk said from his home in suburban Montreal. “Makivik is supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the Inuit but I feel that the organizations that were

developed for the Inuit are not serving those they are supposed to serve.” The Beaconsfield house, he said, is a sore point among the Inuit. If he wins, he vowed, he will not move into it: “There’s no logic to moving into a huge mansion like this while Inuit are living so poorly.”

With an annual income of at least $194,000, Watt does not live poorly. As a senator, he earns $64,400 plus a tax-free expense account of $10,100. His salary as president of Makivik is about $120,000 a year, with other benefits including the rent-free house, a per diem “southern allowance” for each day he spends away from his permanent home in Kuujjuaq, a leased car, plus travel and entertainment allowances.

A former opponent also thinks that Watt has lost touch with Inuit values. “Originally, he had his heart in the right place, but I feel he is wrong for the people now,” says Harry Tulugak, a former mayor of Puvimituq who ran against Watt for the Makivik presidency in 1991. “I see the statistics rising on suicides, solvent abuse and child sexual abuse, which tell us something is wrong. But all Charlie is doing is negotiating and learning the business and political ways of the south at the expense of the Inuit he represents.”

Still, Watt has defenders. “He is a visionary leader,” retorts Rosemarie Kuptana, president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the national

Inuit organization. She says Watt is the only person with the political and business experience to run Makivik. “I don’t think there is any other Inuit leader who can do it,” she says. “And he wants other people to succeed around him as well. He has long-term economic and political goals for his people.”

Watt, who is married with five children, was the founding president of Makivik in 1978 but was defeated in the 1982 election by another Inuit leader, Mary Simon. The next year, Pierre Trudeau appointed him to the Senate, and Watt began to develop his chain of hunting camps and a company called Caribou Ungava Ltd. In 1987, he returned to Makivik as treasurer, and was re-elected I president in 1988. The organi§ zation runs six subsidiaries g including two airlines, a travel I agency and a fuel company.

I Watt also spends three I months every summer in § northern Quebec working for I Fort Chimo Outfitters, the I chain of hunting camps he x started, which is now in his I son Donald’s name. “I sold 5 my shares to Donald,” said ± Watt, who says the company is worth $1 million. About 300 hunters a year, including many from the United States, Europe and Mexico, pay between $1,900 and $4,000 each for a week of hunting caribou and fishing for salmon, arctic char and speckled trout. Watt says one of his dreams is to set up a native company that would ship exotic meats and fish from the north to specialty shops around the world.

Donald Watt, 27, is also the president of Lunakut Inuit Enterprise Inc., a construction company with links to the family of Liberal Senator Pietro Rizzuto. Company documents filed with the federal and Quebec governments list its headquarters as 301 Watt Ave. in Kuujjuaq—which is the address of Charlie Watt’s northern home. Watt, however, denies having any role in Lunakut. Lunakut was set up to take advantage of development in the north under the upcoming Great Whale project, but it is already seeking business. When a hotel owned by Air Inuit burned down in February, 1992, in the remote town of Kuujjuarapik, Lunakut went after the contract to build a new $2-million replacement. So did a construction company owned by the grassroots federation of 12 Inuit co-operatives, the Fédération des Coopératives de NouveauQuébec. After the co-ops bid on the contract, Air Inuit postponed the project. The co-ops had a similar experience trying to bid against Lunakut on a Hydro Quebec contract, which

was also postponed. As a result, they now predict that Lunakut will get federal contracts to build a promised $50 million worth of wharves in Inuit communities.

All this has led to discussions among Watt’s critics of conflict of interest, not the first time that such talk has been heard. When he went to the Senate in 1984, New Democrat MP Jim Fulton objected publicly, saying a senator should not remain in charge of a federally funded Inuit organization, nor should he be bargaining for the Inuit on self-government and other constitutional issues, as Watt did on many occasions. “You can’t bargain with yourself,” Fulton said at the time.

In 1987, Watt, his lawyer John Lemieux and officials from the department of Indian affairs and northern development had lengthy discussions about whether or not Watt was in violation of the Parliament of Canada Act, which says senators may not benefit from federal government contracts. Eventually, the officials agreed to accept a verbal assurance from Lemieux that his client was not in conflict. Another problem arose the next year when Watt was Makivik treasurer and his company Caribou Ungava Ltd. was heavily in debt. During a meeting of the Makivik board in March, 1988, Watt arranged for the corporation to give a grant of $350,000 to an Inuit landholding company that took over a project from Caribou Ungava, and in turn used $150,000 of the Makivik money to settle one of Caribou Ungava’s debts. “A lot of people questioned this,” said Harry Tulugak. “It was a mess.”

Watt acknowledged that while he has had “some signals” in the past about conflict of interest, he does not see any conflict now in what he is doing. “As a senator,” he said, “I’m representing the interests of the people of northern Quebec.”

With the Inuit gathering in Salluit this week, Watt will be facing questions about the way he negotiated a recent agreement with Hydro Quebec over the second stage of the hydro development in the Great Whale region. In the agreement, the Inuit have agreed to accept $1 billion over the next 50 years, money that can be made available to organizations, individuals and businesses—but only after the Great Whale construction has started. In return, the Inuit will not take any legal action against Hydro Quebec, even though a final report from the federal government’s environmental impact study is at least 18 months away. “They’re agreeing to buy the goods without being told what the impact will be, how much land they’ll lose, which land they’ll lose, which species will be wiped out, which ecosystems,” said an adviser to the Quebec Cree, who strongly oppose the project.

Despite the controversy, however, Rosemarie Kuptana believes that Watt is in no danger of losing Inuit support this week. “Everyone is afraid of Charlie Watt because they see him as someone who is very powerful,” she said. “But he is one of the few people in northern Quebec who has the experience and knowledge to run Makivik. He’s the right person for the position he’s in at this time.” □