After a 2005 flood in Kashechewan resulted in a complete evacuation of the reserve and severe damages to many of the residences, amidst public pressure, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada began to roll out the bucks to rebuild 60 homes.
As Kashechewan itself was unable to administer the large-scale project with its community members dispersed all over northern Ontario, the responsibility was given to the Mushkegowuk Council, their grand council which represents six other nations.
“We needed to rush, we couldn’t wait a couple of months, it was getting into the fall season. So, we started the work and INAC, true to its word, reimbursed us for the funding periodically,” said Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council.
When INAC approached the Mushkegowuk Council to spearhead the rebuilding project, it was clear that it was going to be a costly undertaking as the already dilapidated homes on the reserve were now suffering from severe structural problems as a result of the flooding.
“They agreed to renovate 60 housing units in Kashechewan, but there was nothing written about the costs,” said Louttit.
Without hesitation the rebuilding process began to repair the damaged homes. Millions of dollars were spent on building materials, machinery and manpower to get the project completed. With Kasechewan’s population living in tents and the looming threat of winter on the horizon, time was of the essence.
“As we progressed into the project, INAC became increasingly concerned regarding the housing and the fact that it was taking a bit longer than originally expected and the expenditures were becoming higher,” said Louttit.
When the project began it had no budget, only an order to rebuild. Louttit said that about halfway through the budget INAC gave some direction in terms of how much should be spent. A month later, the ministry turned around and increased the funding, though never indicating what the limit was.
As the project began to near its end, having now gone into the winter months, INAC unexpectedly decided to pull the plug on the operation and told the Mushkegowuk Council that there would be no more funding for rebuilding even though the homes were not yet finished.
Louttit said that at that point they consulted the community and its council to ask them what they felt should be done – remain in tents in -40 weather or complete the 60 homes? They chose the latter.
In total, Mushkegowuk spent $13,323,636 to rebuild Kashechewan. But, since INAC decided to cut off the funding at just over $11 million, the council says that they are still owed $2,464,740.
Claiming that there were “unwarranted” expenditures, INAC first ordered a financial review by an independent party. When review found nothing amiss with Mushkegowuk’s initial spending, INAC then ordered an audit that was also preceded by a legal review.
While the Mushkegowuk Council was compliant with the ministry’s incessant demands, after the final review INAC would still not concede and continued to refuse to pay the outstanding invoices from the council.
The Mushkegowuk Council even had itself audited over the matter and its auditor could find no wrong with its spending.
INAC has claimed that it is justified in withholding the funds because it still questions some of the expenditures and says the council did not manage the funds well.
“The deputy minister of INAC forwarded me a letter just yesterday saying that there are no more funds owing to the Mushkegowuk Council and we totally don’t agree with this,” said Louttit.
Though Louttit admits that some extra rooms were added to several homes, they were only acting in accordance with the national occupancy standards of the National Building Code and so they chose to follow the law.
“INAC does not recognize the national standards, they have their own occupancy standards that we should have been following and with those they would have rather had 30 people living in one house,” said Louttit.
Though the people of Kashechewan are back living in their homes and happy to be there, the Mushkegowuk Council is left holding an empty bag.
“We are having severe cash flow problems. We cannot pay bills relating to the project and our biweekly payroll is even a huge challenge because we sometimes don’t have the funds for it,” said Louttit.
With fewer than 25 employees, the Mushkegowuk Council’s annual budget is under $8 million for all seven communities that they serve.
The council is now in the process of preparing a reply to INAC’s deputy minister in response to his recent letter as thus far it is their only recourse.