By Scott Edmonds
WINNIPEG (CP) – A bank is calling the financial shots on one of Manitoba’s largest First Nations, claims a group of dissident band members who blame unaccountable leadership for the problem.
After years of trying to get financial information out of Chief Louis Stevenson, the Concerned Citizens of Peguis finally managed to obtain an audit and other material earlier this year.
They found a $27 million current and capital debt. There was also a deal with the Royal Bank of Canada to borrow almost $12 million to keep the wolves at bay, with strict conditions on what financial decisions the band may now make. Nevertheless, band leadership is now busy delivering new furniture and appliances to band members on the eve of council elections, complains Herb Hudson.
“They give out furniture to select people,” he said Tuesday.
“This is how they obtain their votes.”
Hudson is seeking a seat on council in Friday’s band elections. His nephew Glenn Hudson is running against Stevenson for the position of chief of the reserve, which has an on-and off-reserve population of 7,000.
Off-reserve residents will be eligible to vote for the first time. But Hudson denies the release of the financial information is directly connected to the election. And he says despite the revelations, band members are reluctant to openly oppose Stevenson.
“There’s a lot of fear. People don’t want to speak out.”
The 300-square-kilometre reserve is located on rocky soil between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. Unemployment runs around 85 per cent and some residents complain of poor housing and an administration that looks after itself first.
Stevenson earns a tax-free salary of around $96,000 and racked up a personal travel bill last year of about $70,000, say the financial documents obtained by the dissidents.
Stevenson, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, has said the band’s money is well invested and the reserve has $90 million in assets, a claim Hudson says is ridiculous.
This isn’t the first time Stevenson as been accused of being autocratic and secretive. Last year he had the publisher of an aboriginal newspaper ejected from a meeting on the reserve with Premier Gary Doer when the publisher tried to raise questions of accountability.
Stevenson also led a group of protesters who attacked the Manitoba legislature in 1999 and were rebuffed with pepper spray by police.
The complaints about Stevenson occur just as MPs were set to discuss a resolution in the House of Commons that would shed a little light on the financial affairs of all Canada’s First Nations.
A Canadian Alliance motion would compel government to release First Nation audits currently kept confidential under a 12-year-old Federal Court ruling. The governing Liberals have said they will support the motion.
First Nations get about $7 billion annually.