Police investigate misuse of pandemic funds in Kanesatake following community outcry

Provincial police are investigating allegations of fraud at the Kanesatake Band Council, after a forensic audit found a former chief raised $469,000 in emergency COVID-19 funds over a period of 16 months.

The audit, obtained by the rover and Ricochetuncovered what appear to be “attempts to cover up” how federal aid was spent during the height of the pandemic, including $1.2 million in salaries “not paid through the standard payroll system.”

The bulk of these payments went to a handful of band council contractors, the chief of the Kanesatake health center and at least one former chief. All have served or worked with the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) – a task force responsible for managing Kanesatake’s response to the pandemic. It appears that millions of people have been moved using wire transfers and petty cash vouchers without the expenses having been approved by the council.

“I kept hearing that the ERU people were paying themselves two and maybe three salaries, but that was just a rumour. But then someone comes to you and says they’ve been offered a second salary… So I started asking questions.

Sources close to the investigation say that the financial crimes division of the Sûreté du Québec took over the file a year ago. Police intervened at the request of seven members of the group who had been looking into the emergency fund since the summer of 2020.

The ERU was established in April 2020 to address the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 in Kanesatake. Working under former Kanesatake Health Center Director Joyce Bonspiel-Nelson, former Vice Chief Patricia Meilleur and former Grand Chief Serge Simon, the ERU has managed $3.89 million in aid Ottawa emergency.

In addition to his role as vice chief at the time, Meilleur acted as incident commander for the ERU — a job that earned him nearly half a million dollars over 16 months. Best also took in $129,000 in salary for his role as vice chief during that time.

Bonspiel-Nelson approved Best’s bounty rather than have it approved by a quorum of leaders. This is a violation of band council policy. Bonspiel-Nelson received $279,000 in compensation for her role as director of clinical services at the ERU while also collecting her salary as director of the health center.

“I kept hearing that the ERU people were paying themselves two and maybe three salaries, but that was just a rumour,” said Jeremy Tomlinson, a Kanesatake resident who investigates the ERU. for two years. “But then someone comes to you and says they’ve been offered a second salary. And you start hearing the same information from independent sources.

“So I started asking questions.”

Tomlinson, a former RCMP investigator, was not alone.

John Harding owns a tobacco shop in Kanesatake. When the pandemic hit, he closed it to comply with Quebec’s COVID-19 rules.

“I heard there was money going out to stores in our sister community (Kahnawake) and wondered why Kanesatake wasn’t getting any,” Harding said. “But then we found out there was relief money in Kanesatake. They did not announce it publicly to ask companies to apply. They just selected companies and gave them money.

Harding needed help, but he was not on good terms with the band council. A few months earlier, he was among hundreds of community members who blocked Kanesatake in solidarity with land defenders arrested during the crisis in Wet’suwet’en territory.

They were also supporting the Mohawks on the south shore of Kahnawake, where the defenders of the land were blocking a rail line that fed Montreal. But Kanesatake’s grand chief at the time, Serge Simon, said the blockade should be lifted as a sign of good faith.

Kanesatake resident Jeremy Tomlinson

This prompted Harding and others to padlock the doors of the band council on the morning of the Kanesatake blockade. So when his request for help was denied, he wondered if his clash with High Chief Simon was the cause.

“I guess my request was denied because of the blockade,” Harding said. “You know, ‘You wanna be an asshole? You don’t get any help. There were others, outspoken business owners, who were in my position too.

Harding and Tomlinson worked closely with former Kanesatake police chief Tracy Cross to obtain information on ERU finances.

Simon said he would not give details of the audit or its findings until they are made public at a community meeting on Tuesday evening. He insists he was unaware of the double salaries and did not approve of them, and notes that the audit found no evidence that he took extra money from the ERU .

“I received nothing more than my boss’s paycheck” during the period covered by the audit, Simon told Ricochet. “They say I signed the ERU salaries (but) I didn’t.”

Best and Bonspiel-Nelson did not respond to interview requests. It is important to note that no criminal charges have been filed and none of the audit findings have been tested in court.

Tuesday evening’s meeting will be the first time that ERU members will face questions from their community members. But Harding, Tomlinson and the others have been pushing for it since June 2020, when they hand-delivered a list of questions to chief and council. The questions, which were part of a 17-page document, asked for accounting information that band members are entitled to see under First Nations Financial Transparency Act and Kanesatake’s own election code.

“Most of the chefs said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take care of that and answer your questions,’ but pretty soon they ran into trouble,” Harding said. “Eventually they got back to us and said, ‘We started looking but they blocked us. We seem to have issues where people are being paid double. In other words, people were getting an ERU salary and a consulting salary.

In fact, when a band council administrator asked for a list of ERU employees and their salaries, he received a letter from a lawyer advising him that answering these questions would be a violation of law. on the protection of personal information. This lawyer was paid with ERU funds, according to the audit.

“At the end of the day, when you ask simple accounting questions, you should get simple answers. There aren’t 100 potential scenarios here, there’s either wrongdoing or incompetence.

The group pushed back, using every legal means possible to get more information about the ERU. Among their findings, an entry in the Quebec business database revealed that the ERU had registered its head office with someone rather than the band council or health center. When they asked why a utility was listed as a private company, they were blocked.

“At a time when it was necessary for council to restrict liberties in the spirit of public health, chiefs and council were given a lot of power,” Tomlinson said. “You would think that would mean their sense of social responsibility and accountability would be on an even higher level. But when we asked questions, we were greeted with slammed doors.

“At the end of the day, when you ask simple accounting questions, you should get simple answers. There aren’t 100 potential scenarios here, there’s either wrongdoing or incompetence.

Eight weeks after delivering the 17-page document, the group still had no response from the board. So they called a community meeting in the parking lot of their local high school, gathering more than 100 people to vote on a no-confidence motion regarding the leadership of Simon and Meilleur – the Grand Chief’s closest ally on the council.

Although nothing came of the vote of no confidence, Simon began to face serious political opposition for the first time since his election as Grand Chief in 2011. In the summer of 2021, after an election campaign dominated by the question of COVID-19 funds, Simon and Meilleur were eliminated. Newly elected Grand Chief Victor Bonspille was among those demanding answers on the ERU. Tomlinson was also elected to the council, but soon resigned to take charge of Kanesatake Health Center.

Shortly after taking office, Bonspille requested an investigation by the SQ’s anti-fraud division. The newly elected council also approved a forensic audit of ERU and health center finances.

Bonspiel-Nelson was fired from the health center last year. Best resigned from the ERU when she lost her re-election bid.

When asked if the ERU and the health center had their affairs in order, Tomlinson was hopeful.

“We haven’t wiped the slate clean yet, but it’s moving forward,” Tomlinson said. “My goal, from the beginning, was to improve the position of my community, to make sure that there is a certain level of accountability, that people can look to their elected officials and have confidence that they are doing their work honestly.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, everything is corrupt’, but the fact is that there are a lot of people who refused to take this money and a lot of them became whistleblowers. At first glance, a few people lined their pockets, but many more stood up to them and said “enough is enough.” ”

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, a source said he was urging police to take a closer look at the council’s finances, particularly on how emergency funding was used during the 2017 floods that swept through the southern Quebec.

“Ultimately, some bad actors acted in bad faith, but I don’t think that’s representative of that community,” Harding said. “People here need to be able to trust their elected officials and I think we are moving in the right direction.”

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