Protestors opposing the Cree School Board's new bus contract at the Annual General Assembly in August 2014

Protestors opposing the Cree School Board’s new bus contract at the Annual General Assembly in August 2014

The Cree School Board’s (CSB) decision to award a school bus contract for students in all Cree communities to a single company that has never before operated in Eeyou Istchee is causing an explosion of anger and controversy.

The process by which Gingras-Shecapio, a new partnership between William Shecapio and Quebec City-based Gestion Alexandre Gingras Inc, won the contract is convoluted.

As CSB chairperson Kathleen Wooten explained during the Cree Annual General Assembly (AGA) in August, the student transport contract on offer covers five school years, ending in 2018-2019. Because the contract would be worth over $100,000, the CSB was required to make a public call for tenders. On March 6, the tender went up – both in the Cree communities, and through the Quebec government’s electronic tender system (visible to companies across the province).

Though they received six bids, the CSB encountered realized that they had not provided bidders enough detailed information. The CSB then refused all the bids that had been submitted and issued a second call for tenders April 23.

The second public call for tenders was open until May 14, roughly the period of Goose Break. According to one source that wished to remain anonymous, this forced at least one bidder to rush back from camp in order to send in their bid at the last minute. Others may have missed the chance entirely.

One bidder offered to cover transportation services in Chisasibi, Nemaska, Waskaganish and Wemindji. Gingras-Shecapio was the only company offering to provide services to all the communities – with the exception of Whapmagoostui – at the lowest price.

The prospect of a single large outside company putting local providers out of business sparked angry rumours, with some noting that Gingras-Shecapio Inc. was created only in July in response to the province-wide call for tenders, and claiming it was a “rent-an-Indian” company.

Though Mistissini’s William Phillip Shecapio is registered as the company’s vice-president, critics claim the corporation is a Trojan horse to sneak Gingras-Shecapio’s parent company Le Groupe Swiftrans into Eeyou Istchee. Based in Quebec City, Le Groupe Swiftrans owns nine other bus lines in addition to Gingras Shecapio, including a guided tour line in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an airport shuttle and charter line in Brampton, Ontario, and student transport lines all over Quebec.

To the CSB, however, Gingras-Shecapio’s bid made good economic sense and would provide a standard of transportation best suited for Cree students.

“Throughout the process that led to the signing of the contract the overriding objective of the Cree School Board has always been to ensure that our Cree youth would be provided with efficient, reliable, safe school transportation services throughout all eight Cree communities concerned,” Wooten told the AGA.

Wooten said there were problems in some communities from contractors that did not provide a sufficient fleet of vehicles. Others didn’t have certificates of mechanical inspection of vehicles or failed to respect schedules.

Gingras-Shecapio, said Wooten, has long experience in school transportation and underbid all competitors by $200,000. The Gingras-Shecapio bid includes a commitment to provide 22 new vehicles, plus an additional eight buses to be used in emergencies.

In this case, size matters. The anonymous source that contacted the Nation emphasized that Cree companies are generally small and must rely on obtaining contracts before they can purchase new vehicles. The source suggested that the size of Le Groupe Swiftrans allowed them to make offers 100% Cree-owned companies would find hard to match.

But as the issue was debated at the AGA, a letter sent to the CSB and to the Cree Nation of Mistissini stirred the pot. The letter wholeheartedly endorsed the choice of Gingras-Shecapio and was signed by four drivers, a special-needs driver and three bus monitors – the entire driver/monitor staff of Mistissini’s Transport Petawabano, which previously handled school transportation in that community.

The signatories said that previous contractors used old vehicles that were not properly maintained and faced frequent mechanical failures. They said they supported the choice Gingras-Shecapio for safety reasons.

Mistissini bus driver Kathy Coon Come, lead signatory of the letter, told the Nation that from the beginning of her time driving for Transport Petawabano her bus was plagued by exhaust fumes. She said she suffered headaches, dizziness and breathing difficulties as a result.

“Right from when I started working, I could see there was lots of things that needed fixing,” Coon Come said. “A few months after I started, the bus smelled really bad of exhaust. Every time this happened, I would call or text [Tony Petawabano], but he would just tell me to put Prestone for the radiator to fill it up, because there was a fluid leak. I kept doing that, filling it up, and I told him the kids were complaining that the bus smelled bad.”

The problem reached its peak on a midwinter day when black smoke began flowing out of the vents into the bus.

“At first, I thought a kid was playing with a lighter,” she said. “Then one kid yelled, ‘There’s smoke coming from the vents!’ I could see it. That’s when I stopped my bus. It was really cold, minus-40. I had to evacuate my bus and send the kids out. The good thing was the people driving by lent a helping hand and took some kids home. I don’t know if the parents really approved of that, but I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want them to stand in the freezing cold.”

When she returned the bus to the storage garage, Coon Come says that Petawabano sent a friend who was not a mechanic, and his solution to the problem of the smoke was simply to fill up the leaking radiator again.

There were other issues: she said one bus had over 300,000 km on its odometer, and though CSB and provincial regulations require regular certificates of safety inspection be issued, Coon Come says she never saw that happen.

“The reason why I’m speaking out now is so the other communities will know,” Coon Come said. “They’re probably going through the same things as well. I’ve heard the buses were pretty old. What I want are safe children. I choose that ahead of promoting 100% Cree-owned business. I want kids’ safety to come first.”

Coon Come says she complained to CSB Equipment Services Superintendent Ronnie Blacksmith, particularly following the incident of having to evacuate her bus due to smoke fumes. However, when contacted for comment, Blacksmith said he had been asked by the Director General of the Cree Nation of Mistissini not to comment on the issue.

Likewise, Tony Petawabano would not comment respond to Coon Come’s assertions until he has read the letter and consulted with his lawyer. However, he points out that Coon Come, under her maiden name Kathy Neeposh, was one of the seven competing bidders for the same contract that was ultimately awarded to Gingras-Shecapio. He said it’s possible her statements may have been motivated by her personal investment in the competition.

In Mistissini, the issue has prompted pressure on the band council to adopt a resolution requiring contracts be given only to 100%-Cree-owned businesses. No one in the band council office was willing to comment on that issue or whether such a resolution had been tabled. Several calls to the Director General were not returned.

In Waswanipi, sisters Evelyne and Julie Cooper were sad to see the bid handed to Gingras-Shecapio. That decision effectively shut down their family company, Cooper Transportation, which was dounded by their father in 1997.

“We have two buses, and now both buses are just sitting out there,” said Evelyne Cooper. The new buses from Gingras-Shecapio have arrived in town, and the Coopers have encouraged their drivers and monitors to apply for jobs with the new company. Gingras-Shecapio took two drivers and one monitor out of the company’s four employees – the only monitor not hired was Evelyne’s son.

Meanwhile, the Coopers are stuck paying loans on two new vehicles.

“It doesn’t take just five years to pay off a bus,” said Evelyne. “A bus is expensive,à these days. We still have to figure out how to make payments because it was borrowed money from the Eeyou Economic Group. I’m pretty sure people in other communities have buses to pay for too.”

Every company that bid on the contract was asked to name a base price per single bus with one driver, one monitor and all expenses related to operating the vehicle (such as fuel, insurance and registration) and any measures required to operating in adverse weather. Gingras-Shecapio won the bid with a price of $104,500 per bus. Transport Petawabano was close, at $105,000 per bus.

Cooper Transport offered $115,132 per bus. But Julie Cooper says she can’t imagine how Gingras-Shecapio could have bid as low as they did.

“I don’t think they took a lot of things into consideration,” she said. “I’m thinking they’re not aware of the high fuel prices that are happening right now. Even the cost of the bus went up almost $10,000. That’s why for us, the cost of the buses was a little bit high. We took that into consideration [in our tender]. Plus the cost of living also went up. For me, if [Gingras-Shecapio] bid that low, they won’t survive long. It’s not very profitable.”

In her address to the AGA, Wooten said having to work with multiple transport companies was a challenge for the CSB.

Still, Julie says it stings to lose a business that paid back into the Cree Nation of Waswanipi, especially to one half-owned by non-Crees in Quebec City, and whose profits will in part be leaving the economy of the Cree Nation.

“My father barely had any education, but he was always a go-getter type of man,” said Julie. “In this company, he wanted to be one of the businesses that create employment. He knew his numbers, and I know he was always thinking of other people. That was the mentality he had. He never thought about what he was going to get out of it, but he knew something would come to him because he liked giving.”

But Julie Cooper said she only wanted to continue in her father’s footsteps by creating jobs – one reason she encouraged her former employees to work for Gingras-Shecapio.

“We never became millionaires out of these contracts. But it was important that we hired locally, and that it was a local business that got the contract. When I think about how much of a loss it is that a business here would shut down because there was no work related to that field that they’re in – it’s sad. I’ve only ever been paid a small amount every week to take care of the company. This is what this company’s about. It’s not just about making money.”

The Nation attempted to contact several other key people for this story. The email address listed on the Le Groupe Swiftrans site for William Shecapio was not functional, and his telephone number was likewise out of service. Messages left on Le Groupe Swiftrans’ voice mail for Gingras-Shecapio’s President and Secretary Alexandre Gingras had not been returned at press time.