Former national chief lands job with law firm AFN hired to lead class action against federal government

Perry Bellegarde, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services, at an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in July 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Perry Bellegarde, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services, at an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in July 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

When it came time for the Assembly of First Nations to hire a firm to lead a multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit against the federal government, Perry Bellegarde would've likely had a say in that decision. Now, that same firm has hired the former national chief as a special adviser.

But even before that time in 2020, Fasken, one of Canada's leading business law firms, worked for the AFN on challenging legal issues — and could eventually be paid legal fees for its work on the class action if a proposed $20-billion settlement is approved.

"A few of our colleagues have known Chief Bellegarde for years," said Martin Denyes, Fasken's regional managing partner for Ontario, in a Monday news release announcing Bellegarde's hiring.

"More of us have come to know him over the last few months as we have discussed the possibilities around this opportunity. You cannot help but broaden your world view after a good conversation with Perry."

The AFN has hired Fasken, which employs more than 800 lawyers countrywide and internationally, as external counsel to help navigate both high-stakes and low-profile situations.

Since 2019, Fasken lawyers have conducted two probes into the conduct of regional chiefs and defended the AFN against two lawsuits filed by former employees in provincial court.

The release did not mention the firm's long-standing relationship with the AFN due to the confidential nature of those arrangements, a spokesperson for the firm said in an emailed statement supplied in response to an interview request.

"Our news is about Chief Bellegarde joining the firm and enhancing our team," the statement said.

"He has joined us because Fasken is a tremendous platform on which he can continue his life's work, continue to engage in meaningful conversations around the Indigenous experience and bring about transformational change."

Fasken asked to handle harassment probe

In 2019, the AFN hired Fasken to conduct a probe into harassment allegations against Morley Googoo, the AFN regional chief for Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, who had been suspended at the time.

Chiefs in Googoo's region voted to remove him from the post a few months later, a day after Fasken investigators completed their report. Googoo would eventually stand trial and be found not guilty on sex assault charges his lawyer deemed "unfounded."

In January 2020, the AFN filed the class action against Canada, seeking compensation for victims of the underfunded First Nations child-welfare system. Xavier Moushoom had filed a similar lawsuit in 2019.

The AFN decided to sue after the organization "became concerned that it would be sidelined in discussions related to long-term reform and compensation" happening in the Moushoom case, according to an affidavit sworn this year by AFN CEO Janice Ciavaglia.

A different firm represented the lobby group in the initial filing, but the AFN swapped legal firms in August 2020. Fasken has represented the AFN in the case since then, including in confidential talks that led to the proposed settlement, according to court files.

Under that deal, any legal fees paid out to lawyers would be negotiated between class counsel and Canada and would need to be approved by the court. Canada would pay these fees separately, not out of the $20 billion, the files state.

The settlement is currently on hold, however, after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal last week refused to declare that the deal would satisfy the tribunal's pre-existing compensation order from 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ciavaglia's affidavit included a draft copy of an AFN executive committee motion authorizing the lawsuit's filing in 2020, which lists Bellegarde among several other participants in the AFN's decision to sue.

Bellegarde, a long-serving First Nations political leader from Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, was elected to two consecutive terms as AFN national chief between 2014 and 2021.

A public relations team managing the announcement did not respond to CBC's request to interview Bellegarde. In the Fasken release, Bellegarde said he looks forward to the new role.

"I know firsthand how important it is for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to connect and to understand one another in order to advance human rights, as well as economic prosperity and development," he said in the release.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Bellegarde said he anticipates occasionally working with corporate clients who are on the opposite side of issues with Indigenous groups.

Firm did preliminary probe into current national chief

Fasken's work for the AFN continued into 2021 when it conducted a preliminary probe into bullying allegations against RoseAnne Archibald, who was then the regional chief for Ontario.

The probe found the "allegations and evidence to be credible," and the AFN executive ordered a full investigation, which a different firm was hired to do.

At the time, Archibald, who is now national chief, claimed the allegations were a reprisal. She had been requesting a review of AFN's financial policies and practices, claiming to have documents that showed "financial improprieties" within the AFN.

Andrew Lee/CBC
Andrew Lee/CBC

A Fasken lawyer also represented AFN as a defendant in a $100,000 wrongful dismissal suit filed by former communications officer Gail Boyd in December 2020. The case was dismissed on consent in June 2021.

The same lawyer is currently representing AFN in another wrongful dismissal lawsuit the organization's former HR director Robin Henry filed in June 2022, according to the Ontario Superior Court registry.

This one seeks $200,000 in damages and has not been tested in court.