A Saskatchewan courtroom was the setting recently of a victory for First Nations Canadians hoping to eliminate corrupt governance.
Two Mosquito First Nation officials -- Alphonse Moosomin and Eldon Starchief -- pleaded guilty to "converting with intent to defraud monies held in trust." The treaty land entitlement trustees entered the pleas in a court in North Battleford, Sask., on Aug. 17. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 22 at which time details are to be revealed.
The band's $9.6-million treaty land entitlement fund, part of a 1992 agreement with the federal government, was compensation for land the band was historically supposed to receive, but never did. The money was to be used to buy land, to benefit all residents of the reserve about 25 kilometres southeast of North Battleford. An undisclosed amount was used fraudulently.
Following a five-year investigation by North Battleford and Saskatoon RCMP, the band's chief and four trustees were charged. The three other accused are scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 8.
Throughout Canada, band members are caught between the desire for independent governance and consequent loss of the protections other Canadians enjoy. Being in full control of finances, First Nations leaders find it much easier to stray into the dark side than the highly regulated, mainstream administrations. Sadly, the chances of getting charged are remote.
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)staff members often say band members and leaders must deal with corruption. That's easier said than done.
Justice-seekers face the wrath of the leaders they want investigated. They can be booted off their reserves, blacklisted from local employment, have their welfare withheld and even have Child and Family Services take their children away.
When outside media report, complainants are quickly branded as trouble-makers and radicals, or accused of having a political agenda. In most instances, they can take documents and other evidence of financial corruption to the RCMP commercial crime section, but it will not trigger an investigation.
When a chief is involved, police hands are tied. Officers generally respond: "If the chief has said he or she has authorized these questionable transactions, there is nothing we can do."
Investigations can have disastrous consequences. On one reserve in Manitoba's Interlake area, INAC was to conduct a forensic audit. That weekend, the band office burned and all records were destroyed. No one has been charged.
Getting charges laid is a success for both the Mosquito First Nation band members and the RCMP, a precedent that will help bring justice to more First Nations people. It's an outcome Muriel Woodford of the 660-member Little Saskatchewan First Nation just off Highway 6, near Gysumville, would probably welcome.
Woodford told the Winnipeg Free Press the band is in trouble, as co-management and then third-party management have failed to resolve the problems. They got authorization to receive $130,000 for a gas bar, and were advanced $600,000 for an elders' home, almost $1 million for flood-fighting and $60,000 to repair the school's sprinkler system.
The gas bar is an abandoned hole. There is a shell at the cancelled elders' home project site and no money was spent on flood-fighting in the community.
Ottawa wants the elders' home money back. The band is on a 10-year repayment schedule for the flood-fighting money and the band will also repay Ottawa for the school sprinkler system funds. No one has answered the question: Where did the money go?
Former grand chief Sydney Garrioch once asked me why I write articles that make us look bad. I said if we are ever to clean up our act we have to change the way we do things and sometimes we need help.
Am I airing our dirty laundry? Sure. So be it. We Indians are painfully aware of corruption, and we also know that, although INAC does not listen to us, the government listens to the general public. The charges laid in Saskatchewan show public attention is helping.
We have progress on another front, too. In Manitoba, old boys are being voted out of office and more-educated, ethical leaders -- including grand chiefs David Harper, of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and Morris Shannaccapo of the Southern Chiefs Organization -- are working hard for their people.
It's an excellent start, giving hope that one day all of us in Indian country -- not just the chiefs -- will have the chance to vote out corrupt contenders. Then we will have true democracy.
Don Sandberg is the aboriginal policy fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org