By Lloyd Dolha
Former aboriginal leader Margaret Swan avoided a jail sentence, but still received a one-year suspended sentence on May 31, for stealing $35,000 from her own band while she was chief of the Manitoba Lake First Nation of southern Manitoba.
Crown attorney Tony Kavanagh, told the court how Swan made out two cheques to cash – one for $10,000 and the other for $25,000. Swan then deposited the ill-gotten gains in her own account and used the stolen funds to pay off a loan on her Jeep Cherokee and put a down payment on a new house.
“The victims are not faceless. They’re the ordinary people going about their lives and having to do with less, ” said Kavanagh. “This is not a rich community. Every penny is needed in that community and $35,000 is a lot of money.”
Swan’s abuse of trust was compounded by the fact that she was an elected official who stole from the very people who had chosen her to lead them, Kavanagh said.
Swan, 42, was charged with fraud over $5,000 and theft over $5,000 last August, but denied any wrong-doing for months. Late in March at trial, Swan admitted that she had stolen the money from her band while chief.
At the time of the theft, Swan had told her colleagues that she had used the money to pay off a loan on an elder’s house, when evidence of financial irregularities surfaced.
The RCMP alleged that the former chief had drawn some $61,000 in unauthorized cheques for her own personal use before leaving to become grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization over two years ago.
The former grand chief begged the court for leniency, saying that her future should be considered when the judge sentenced her.
“I weep for my people, because they need all the help they can get,” said Swan. “I hope the justice system gives me a chance to carry on … to enhance or better the lives of our people.”
Swan was fired from her $85,000 per year job as grand chief of the Manitoba Southern Chiefs Organization in mid-May, when the chiefs passed a non-confidence motion by a vote of 20-7. She had been suspended without pay in March after pleading guilty to the theft.
Defense lawyer Greg Brodsky asked the court for a conditional discharge so Swan would not have a criminal record and would be able to “get back to work.” He noted that Swan was a perfect candidate” for such a discharge.
“She was on her way to making a huge difference in the lives of her people and, as a result of her indiscretions, its all come tumbling down,” said Brodsky.
Sentencing judge Robert Kaplan also took notice of the “magnificent contributions to society” Swan had made during her tenure.
Swan was ordered to repay the money she stole and to perform 50 hours community service.
An election for a new grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization will be held June 24, at the Long Plain First Nation.