The Sakami Eeyou fund has shrunken $14 million in the last two years, according to information obtained by The Nation’97a decline of nearly 40 per cent in its assets.
But the Wemindji band was quick to reassure residents that the situation is under control and there’s nothing to worry about.
The Sakami fund was compensation given to Wemindji by the Soci’e9t’e9 d”e9nergie de la Baie James for flooding caused by hydro-electric projects. Since the late 70s, when the fund was set up, Wemindji has received $20 to 25 million in compensation.
In 1993, the Sakami Eeyou Corporation’s annual report showed assets of $36.9 million. That total fell by $7.4 million the next year, to $29.5 million. In 1995, the total dropped again to $22.9 million, a decline of $6.6 million.
At first, the fund was invested and showed steady growth. But in recent years, it has been spent on a wide variety of costly projects’97a mini-hydro dam, a fur farm, an access road to the James Bay Highway, Air Wemindji, housing, water and sewage systems, a gas/repair station, a mini-mall.
Some of the projects lost a lot of money, like the fur farm, which was forced to close after anti-fur protests caused fur prices to collapse. The band estimates it lost $1.25 million on the fur farm alone.
Millions more have disappeared from the Sakami fund’s books because they’ve been transferred directly into the accounts of the band or its entities. The band says this was done to save money on taxes.
Wemindji’s treasurer, Tom Wadden, at first denied that the Sakami fund has any less money today than in the past.
“That’s not true. Anyone who says there is less money now doesn’t know what they’re talking about. There is more today than when I started as treasurer,” he said.
But later, he conceded the fund has gotten poorer. “It’s true to say the total has gone down. Maybe there were some bad investments. But we have to learn from our mistakes and move on,” he said.
When asked to elaborate, Wadden said, “Probably the worst investment has been Air Wemindji. But we have to look at the social aspect. People wanted an airline to take trappers into the bush.
“If you take a look at what has been done with the money, it was spent on the community. I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t get value for the money,” he said.
Wadden said Wemindji was forced to pay for many of the projects itself because Ottawa didn’t live up to its obligations in areas like housing and sewage. The band says the feds owe Wemindji $10 to 12 million in grants that never came through.
Mike McGee, Wemindji’s economic development director, said all the Sakami money was spent with the full knowledge and approval of the Band Council.
But he concedes the money is running out. “That fund will disappear. It’s just a matter of time. By the time that fund runs out, I’m confident people will live normal lives as people who work for their money. The community will have to live off the jobs that the fund created.”
Added McGee, “There will come a day when there will be no more grants, when Natives will have to be like other people, paying taxes and getting no grants.”