Mismanaging Alleged Mismanagement: Big Island Lake Cree Nation

http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/12/17/first-nation-chief-council-accused-of-spending-bands-social-assistance-money-on-personal-items-face-audit/

This article is a little bit old, but I wanted to take a moment to draw attention to something that has bothered me since I read it for the first time.

The issue outlined in the article is framed as one of political corruption, financial mismanagement and loss of public trust. If you haven’t read the article, you might think that the above description refers to the Ontario Gas Plants Scandal, the Federal Senate Scandal or even the Rob Ford saga. However, you’d be wrong. The issue captured by this article is related to Band Council spending in Big Island Cree Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.

I’m not going to try to figure out whether the allegations levelled in this article are true because there really isn’t enough information available for me to make a judgement of that nature. However, what I can do is voice my concern about a few things that bother me about what is being reported.

First let’s look at the allegations themselves, as stated in one of the audit documents:

“The areas of analysis include the potential misuse of the social-assistance funds to pay personal expenses of the chief and council; and the allegation that band members who are listed as social-assistance recipients never filed an application and never received social-assistance funds.”

Serious allegations to be sure, but let’s go a little bit deeper before moving on. The article states that the allegations were levied in two separate anonymous letters sent to the Federal Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Development. Obviously it is important to look into all allegations of wrongdoing, but I wonder how much attention two anonymous letters to, say, the City of London would get if received tomorrow (okay, to be fair, maybe they would get some attention in London given recent events, but you get my point)? This certainly isn’t the crux of my argument and I understand that it’s important to investigate any suspicious behaviour, but I do hope that we find out that officials at the Ministry had more evidence than just two anonymous letters before deciding to trigger an investigation.

The second set of allegations reads as follows:

“Vehicles were bought, quads, horses and travel trailers, these were the things the Chief David Sandfly bought and is still spending on and we have no money for payroll or social assistance.”

Again, I won’t downplay the importance of the letter writer’s concerns, but I have difficulty identifying why these allegations are characterized as potentially criminal. It sounds unfortunate and possibly irresponsible for a Chief to spend money on vehicles, quads, horses and travel trailers when money was running short for payroll and social assistance, but I’m not so sure that it sounds criminal. Let’s recognize, that based on the information captured in the article, this allegation and the one discussed above are separate and largely unrelated. There is no suggestion, based on the text of the article, that the money spent on vehicles, quads, horses and travel trailers was coming out of funds directly allocated to payroll or social assistance. Thus, spending money on these things, instead of on payroll seems to be irresponsible financial management but not necessarily criminal activity.

Now, before I go on, I don’t want you to get the idea that criminal wrongdoing should be the standard for evaluating our political officials. In fact, when it comes to behaviour and the management of public funds, our politicians should be held to a much higher standard than the law. In my lifetime, there have been many decisions made by my municipal, provincial and federal governments that I tend to think of as being Criminal, but the reality is that usually these choices are criminal, with a ‘small-c’, rather than in the legal sense. The consequences for bad decisions by politicians in these cases tend to be things like public scrutiny and electoral punishment.

Now, let’s go back to the situation in the Big Island Lake Cree Nation. Beyond the allegations that we’ve already read, let’s take a look at who is being empowered to deal with the situation. The anonymous letters were sent to the federal Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Development; the response to the allegations comes from the Ministry; and the action taken in response to the allegations comes from the Ministry. Compare this situation to something like the Ontario Gas Plants Scandal or the Federal Senate Scandal. When there are allegations to be made against members of the government, members of the opposition party bring them up in committee or at question period. If there are criminal implications, the OPP or the RCMP are called in to investigate. Asking the federal government to deal with the situation in Big Island Lake Cree Nation is almost like asking the the federal government to step in to deal with the Ontario government’s mishandling of the gas plant file.

Why aren’t we hearing about the response of the Big Island Lake Cree Nation government’s response to the allegations of mismanagement? Can you imagine not hearing from the Government of Ontario if it was accused of financial mismanagement? Presumably officials in Big Island Lake would also, “take allegations of misuse of public funds in First Nations communities very seriously” and would likely “investigate allegations once they have been sufficiently substantiated” as the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has committed to doing. Beyond that, I think that it’s reasonable to believe that the people from Big Island Lake are capable of dispatching their own kind of electoral justice if needed. It’s also completely plausible to think that they would be capable of activating a criminal investigation if necessary.

Now before everyone jumps down my throat for comparing the Federal Government’s relationship with a province, to the Federal Government’s relationship with a First Nation, know that I recognize that there are legal differences. The problem that some will have with my analysis and the outrage that I feel, is that many Canadians think of funding for First Nations as something akin to foreign aid, rather than a transfer similar to what the provinces get from the Federal Government. Thus, we think of a Provincial Government as being autonomous and responsible for its own mistakes and cry for accountability when a First Nation mismanages its funds. You can see the sense of ownership that we have taken over the money allocated to Big Island Lake, “the department takes allegations of misuse of public funds in First Nations communities very seriously.” There is nothing wrong with taking allegations of mismanagement seriously, but that the Federal government and many Canadian citizens feel that it is our responsibility to punish First Nations groups for poor funding decisions reeks of patriarchy. The public funds in question belong to the people of Big Island Lake as much, if not more than they belong to any other Canadian taxpayer. The funds dispensed to Big Island Lake are ‘public funds’ but they aren’t all that different from the Federal funds dispensed to the provinces every year. You don’t see the Federal government commissioning audits for every questionable decision made by a provincial government.

No one wants to see mismanagement of anyone’s public money, but I think that we need to look carefully at who we are empowering to deal with examples of mismanagement. In Ontario we have empowered Ontario’s police force, the OPP, and the people of Ontario, through the next election, to deal with the allegations surrounding the Gas Plant Scandal. In Ottawa we have empowered Canada’s police force, the RCMP, and the people of Canada to pass judgement on the Senate Scandal. However, due to a racist, patriarchal system we have decided to empower the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and Deloitte and Touche to investigate the allegations in Big Island Lake Cree Nation. I happen to believe that we would have great results if we empowered the police force (likely the RCMP) responsible for Big Island Lake Cree Nation, and the people of Big Island Cree Lake to deal with this issue.

It’s time that we look in the mirror and realize that have a long way to go before we can say that we are making every attempt to allow First Nations within Canada’s borders to take control over the governance of their communities.

We have far to go and we must do better.

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