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Tax-free status travels with new COO. (News).

A special arrangement between the Assembly of First Nations and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network will see the network's recently hired chief operating officer receive a tax-free salary.

As reported in Windspeaker's November 2002 edition, Jean LaRose, long-time director of communications for the AFN, will succeed Clayton Gordon as the chief operating officer of APTN. The appointment was made official Nov. 4.

LaRose signed a three-year contract. Well-placed sources say his salary is in a range between $13,000 and $160,000 annually. As part of an interchange with the AFN--an organization that is recognized by the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA, formerly Revenue Canada) to be a tax-exempt First Nation political organization-LaRose's salary will not be subject to taxation.

LaRose told Windspeaker his salary at the AFN for the last eight years had been tax-exempt, something he believes is a treaty right of all First Nations people. The one-year interchange will allow him time to approach CCRA as COO of APTN and try to work out a tax-exempt arrangement that would be available to all APTN First Nations employees, he said.

Some observers are concerned that LaRose will in some way be influenced by this tie to his former employer. He strongly denied that would happen.

"That's the discussion I had with the national chief and a couple of the vice-chiefs," he said. "I'm coming here with a clean slate. I'm not bringing the AFN with me. The chief knows that and the vice-chiefs know that."

The interchange agreement

CCRA spokesman Colette Gentes-Hawn said she could not provide specific details of the interchange agreement because of privacy concerns. But she explained how they work.

"When you talk about interchange agreements, those are agreements that Treasury Board has with many different areas. For instance, someone might work for General Motors and come and work for the government for two or three years. He remains an employee of General Motors. General Motors continues to pay his salary and the government reimburses General Motors," she said. "It could work for someone who's an employee of the AFN, for instance, who can be lent out to do a particular job at a particular time and still remain an employee of the [AFN]. That would be an interchange where a salary would still be tax-exempt under the Indian Act."

She said CCRA wouldn't know how many interchanges the AFN was involved in, adding that such agreements would only come to light if an organization was audited. Organizations can request a ruling before the fact from CCRA to see if an agreement they plan to implement falls within the rules. She could not comment on whether the AFN had requested any rulings, saying the information was private.

AFN sources confirmed the agreement but said such interchanges are entered into very rarely.

The board's choice

Clayton Gordon, LaRose's predecessor, took a leave of absence from his position as chairman of the APTN board to fill in as COO after the board chose not to renew the contract of Ron Nadeau, a Thompson, Man lawyer who held the job for two years. Gordon, along with two other finalists, competed against LaRose for the position. Since LaRose was chosen over Gordon, who will return to be chairman of the board, the new COO will find himself in an awkward position, working under a person he edged out in a competition for his job.

LaRose, 48, is a fluently bilingual Abenaki Nation member from the Odanak First Nation (near Sorel, Que.). He has experience in the federal government and the private sector as well as eight years with the AFN. He took over the top management position at the world's only national Aboriginal television network on Nov. 18 with an appearance at the network's Winnipeg headquarters. He starts the job full-time in December.

LaRose will spend two to three weeks a month in Winnipeg and the rest of the time in Ottawa. When in the nation's capital, his office will be in the network's bureau in the national press centre, located across Wellington St. from the Parliament Buildings.

The new COO has had a connection to the network since the earliest days.

"I've been involved with APTN since before it was APTN. I was part of the advisory committee that met for just over a year to lay the groundwork for the network. I was on there with Vice-Chief [Ghislain] Picard from Quebec and we went through defining a mandate, the initial programming grid, working on the license application to the CRTC. I've always thought that APTN was something in which I had some part to play," he said. "When I was first approached to consider the position, I wasn't quite sure I was ready to make the move. I was interested in trying out for it and the process just evolved."

An Aboriginal recruiting firm, Higgins International, conducted the search for candidates for APTN.

Some critics were surprised by the decision to hire a man with no network television experience. LaRose believes he can handle the job.

"Well, I guess time will tell if the choice was a good choice. I happen to think it was for. obvious reasons. I think a lot of what APTN is looking for can find some basis in communications and integration and working with various elements of various groups across the country and trying to get those elements to get together to come to an understanding to work together," he said. " And that's what AFN is all about. AFN always tries to play referee to a certain extent, trying to bridge the differences between regions, different perspectives and trying to get people to come to a consensus to work together towards a common goal. I think my sense from the board of directors when I met with them was that after three years, APTN's done a lot since its creation and they want to make sure that everybody still is brought together to move it to the next step. From my perspective, the things they're looking for are work experiences I've had in the past when I worked for the federal government, worked on my own or worked here at AFN. I've done different types of work. I've done managerial. I've done business. I think they felt I had the mix suited to the challenges facing APTN as they move forward. They have to go before the CRTC in a couple of years for a license renewal. They have to fight to try to get better channel placement."

The approach

He sees APTN as important national institution for all Aboriginal people.

"My long-term vision for APTN is for it to really be the forum, the meeting place, one of the key institutions on which Aboriginal people in Canada will start to build their institutions. One of the key things we have to do right now is talk amongst each other, share our stories and share our experiences. I think APTN is the institution that's best suited to do that. It reaches, potentially, to every one of our communities. It reaches into the urban market. It reaches into the homes of First Nations, Metis, Inuit. It is the institution now that goes out everywhere," he said.

The challenges

He acknowledged he will have a number of challenges in the new position.

"At this point, if we can get Canadians to recognize that, yes, we exist. We are on the somewhere past the snow and past the test screen patterns, there is APTN. There's a thirst out there, from my experience here at AFN, on the part of mainstream Canada to try to understand a bit better who we are," he said. "To them Aboriginal peoples are a mystery and TV is the media that has been reaching into people's lives to present a visual of life in other areas and it has to be the same for us."

The network has been questioned about its commitment to news in the past, especially when news took a five-month hiatus over the summer. LaRose said he sees news as very important.

"As someone who's been involved in media relations for the past eight years, news to me is a very important element, if not one of the... I hesitate to use the word 'key' elements. But I'd say it's a very high priority element for me," he said. "I think news needs to be given a high priority. I've watched their expanded newscast. I must say, at this point, I'm pleasantly impressed with the direction they're taking."

He said he plans to meet with every employee and get tip to speed with what everyone is doing and then assess whether all the steps that need to be taken are being taken. One area where the network has been criticized is seen as a priority for the new COO.

"APTN has to live up to its commitments to French-speaking communities. Up to now, I'm not sure, that what's been done has been favorably received. At least from what I've heard in my role here as AFN communications director. I think there may need to be some work done in that area," he said.

Catherine Martin, acting chairman of the APTN board, will soon step down and return to being the board's secretary. She said LaRose was the candidate who most impressed the board during the interview process.

"Jean LaRose just came across as a person who has some really strong abilities and skills in management and team-leadership, in communications, and a real connection, an ear to the ground on what's going on in the country think what probably sold us was not just his experience an d ability to lead a team but his understanding of where APTN was and where it's trying to go. His vision for APTN was right on," she said.

"Maybe in some areas he doesn't have all of what some people would expect. For us, I don't think there was a real question on that because we were looking for a manager. You know, someone who can manage a national corporation. We have a lot of trained staff now and a leader, which is what [LaRose] is, can do a lot with a team like that."

She was asked if the new COO was given specific instructions on where to take the operation.

"Yes. Part of our understanding and our negotiations was that we identified four major areas that, are key to the next few years, one being fulfilling the CRTC commitments that we've made under our license and to prepare for renewal of our application for our license,' she replied.

The commitment to French and Aboriginal language programming was an area of concern. LaRose is widely recognized as being responsible for allowing French-s peaking chiefs to particular more fully in the AFN He's expected to do the same for F Aboriginal people at APTN.

The audience

Martin conceded that the network has some work to do over the next several years. Former board members have suggested the network needs to start generating more revenue and start relying less on the $20 million it receives in subscriber fees as a result of its must-carry status with cable suppliers.

"Irregardless of our subscribers' fee and the funding that we're getting, we really are interested in working towards self-sufficiency," she said.

Many people in the industry wonder just how many people actually watch APTN. Martin admitted the ratings numbers were low, but she added that the traditional methods of measuring viewership weren't doing APTN justice.

"As with a lot of First Nation statistics, I don't think the ratings companies can actually get an accurate assessment of who's watching APTN just because of the nature of how they do their ratings. Native households are not a major part of those ratings. As a result, some-of the key areas are probably not getting measured as accurately as they could. It's fair and true to say the ratings that we're receiving are probably not as accurate as they could be," she said.

Martin said confidentiality concerns prevented her from confirming that Gordon applied for the position, although several well-placed sources have confirmed that he did.

"I can't comment on who applied for the position. But I can tell you that the reason I'm acting chair is that on May 6, when our agreement with Mr. Nadeau was terminated, the board appointed Mr. Gordon, who is our chair, to be our acting COO. By doing that we needed to put in an acting chain Who was our acting chair? Our vice-chair Diane Smith. Because of the amount of work, she had to step down and I was the secretary on the executive and I was appointed acting chair. That's why Mr. Gordon was not the chair but the acting COO. He will go back to the chair once Jean LaRose comes in," Cathernine Martin said.

An election for the chair of the board position will be held during APTN's annual general meeting in Winnipeg starting Dec. 2. The member Aboriginal communications societies will decide if Gordon will get a new two-year term. The rest of the board's executive--secretary, treasurer and vice-chair--will be voted on in February.

The directors sit on the board for two years, but the chair and the executive change each year.

Martin declined to comment on the interchange agreement.

"I can't comment on anything that's contractual or anything that's confidential," she said.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Jean LaRose; chief operating officer
Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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