Eeyou Istchee has been dealing with its fair share of questionable conduct and suspicious activity. The question is, where is the accountability and consequence?
Here are a few cases that have made the news. Keep in mind that these are the cases known to the public.
• Four Waswanipi women are charged and convicted of stealing upwards of $277,000 from places like the local day care, two grocery stores and individual bank accounts. The incidents took place over a two-year period, from January 2001 to July 2003. Two of them, Cynthia Saganash and Pauline Icebound, get a slap on the wrist in the form of house arrest, while the two who held higher positions and stole the most money, Emily Happyjack-Gull and Josephine Happyjack-Gull, receive eight months in jail and 18 months probation.
• In another community, $292,000 went missing from the band’s housing fund. The chief and council are currently deciding what to do about the multiple incidents, which took place from April 2000 until May 2005. The person suspected by the council was allegedly taking money from community members who came in to pay their rent to the band. According to the chief, one recommendation to deal with the missing money was brought up at a council board meeting. It essentially said that the community member had ruined their name through their own actions and that a lawsuit or trying to recover the money would not be necessary. There were also suggestions of going after the monies lost and pressing charges, but a final decision, almost two years later, has yet to be made.
• The Nation recently uncovered another alleged story of corruption in another community. An investigation into activities by a former councilor has the band alleging misappropriation of funds through unauthorized or unwarranted trips to Montreal and Ottawa. According to sources, the chief’s signature was apparently forged and cheques addressed to the chief were hidden from the council. It’s unclear how much money was misdirected.
There are many things wrong with the misuse of public trust. The first is the unethical abuse by an individual in a position of power over the community. But the second may be the most important: What are the consequences for their actions?
In the Waswanipi case, receiving a sentence of eight months in jail for stealing over a quarter of a million dollars doesn’t seem like justice to me. No one knows what will happen in the other cases, but be advised: don’t hold your breath for a penalty that would dissuade the next person with sticky fingers.
It is important to send a strong message to people who don’t fear getting caught because they think nothing will happen. Steal and you pay the consequences. Whether that means increased jail time, a civil lawsuit or banishing convicted criminals from the community, what are we waiting for? How many people have to be ripped off before criminals like the Waswanipi bank women are held accountable?
In a case like the Waswanipi bank job, they weren’t just taking money from a nameless, faceless organization. They stole from their own cousins and aunts and siblings, not to mention their own community.
If these types of things happened down south, the consequences would be harsh. Thanks to the Gladue Supreme Court case in 1999, however, Native people in the north get off with lighter sentences based on their background and ethnicity.
Cree society is very forgiving and understanding, but to what degree? Should an entire population suffer for the outright greed of a few?
Corruption hurts us all. It’s time people think of the future generations before they pad their wallets with community funds.
If the local bands cannot deal with these issues internally, then perhaps the Grand Council should step in and make sure that law and order isn’t just a program people watch on TV. Or better yet, maybe it’s time the people stand up and say enough is enough. If everyone paid more attention, theft could be reduced considerably and Eeyou Istchee would be a much better place for all who call it home.