On Tuesday evening, at a special meeting, community members were told that COVID-19 federal aid money had allegedly been misappropriated by the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit (ERU).
During the meeting, Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille, along with the Kanesatake Health Center’s (KHC) board of directors, presented a damning forensic audit of the ERU’s finances that revealed that some employees had received hundreds of thousands in salary while simultaneously getting regular pays from the MCK and KHC.
Moreover, the probe uncovered what appears to be attempts made to camouflage or hide the nature of certain expenses and transactions by moving them from one account to another.
“It’s shocking when you see it in print and you see how the money was dispersed on a few individuals from here,” said community member Walter David who attended the meeting.
“And then to hear how they really tried to hide it and camouflage it, wow, you couldn’t be more in- your-face about it. It’s insulting.”
The Surete du Quebec’s (SQ) financial crimes division is currently investigating claims of fraud regarding the federal pandemic aid after the MCK filed a criminal complaint in August 2021. However, as of now, no criminal charges have been filed.
The audit reviewed records spanning from April 2020 to July 2021 and highlighted that $3,159,739 had been dispersed for salaries and casual help. The total amount in expenses recorded by KHC over that same period was $4,700,866.
A chunk of that salary money, representing $1,254,879 went to the ERU’s incident commander and former MCK vice chief Patricia Meilleur, operations managers Christine Meilleur and Karennaha:wi McComber, emergency response consultants Maggie Mayo and Robert Bonspiel, former executive director of KHC Joyce Bonspiel-Nelson and former head of finance Marie-Claude Bernard, among others.
In addition, they also received $792,026 in salary as employees and consultants of the MCK or KHC.
“I would like to be able to say that I am surprised but I wasn’t,” said Teiawenniserate Jeremy Tomlinson, the executive director of KHC.
Tomlinson, a former Council chief, along with John Harding, Tracy Cross and a few other concerned community members, formed a group back in 2020 when rumours began circulating about ERU employees allegedly “double-dipping” and paying themselves out two or more salaries using money intended to help Kanesatake through COVID-19.
“I had examined the finances of the ERU while working on the finance portfolio with MCK. That said, it is still appalling every time I read the figures. In a time when people’s lives are restricted, and persons in authority are entrusted with heightened power, accountability and ethical conduct need to be at the utmost level,” he said.
Furthermore, the audit alleges that employees paid with ERU rates (base salary plus top-off) were not paid through the standard payroll system, nor was the remuneration of those rates declared.
Current MCK chief Brant Etienne worked for the ERU’s Access Control Team (ACT) prior to last summer’s general election. He said that the ACT was not involved in any of the finances of the ERU.
“I think it’s unfortunate but not surprising,” said Etienne. “The fact that a minority of chiefs can direct the administration to contravene our policies is a clear indication that the lack of a strong mechanism to keep them in check and censure them in these cases is the root of the problem.
“I really don’t know how this will all end up. I’m skeptical the government will let us keep any funds that are recouped, so I don’t see the sense in spending the limited monies we have that are needed to deal with the real issues our community faces.”
Etienne believes that the SQ criminal investigation is the only way to deal with this situation. The audit also alleges that transfers made from the MCK to KHC were done using petty cash vouchers and authorized only by the finance head (Bernard) or the incident commander (Meilleur).
According to the documents, these transfers exceed the MCK and KHC policy limit and would have required authorization by the KHC board of directors or a quorum of chiefs. It also highlights that out of $1.4 million in expenses, approximately 35 percent were paid personally by ERU members and reimbursed without formal expense reports.
In June 2020, Tomlinson hand-delivered a 17-page document to members of the previous Council headed by former grand chief Serge Otsi Simon, requesting financial information privy to community members under the Kanesatake Electoral Code. The request went unanswered.
Bonspille, who was a Council chief at the time, asked questions within the Council’s finance department but was stonewalled, he said. Eventually, he received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer representing KHC.
“I was expecting some wrongdoings, but I wasn’t expecting the amounts that came out,” said the grand chief.
“Individuals in certain positions took advantage of our community at a crucial time, and they took advantage of the situation with millions of dollars being handed to our community for the pandemic, to take care of us, and they pocket a large percentage of that. I think they undermined the community.”
According to Bonspille, the group then changed strategy and started asking for information regarding the salaries of public officials within the MCK. In 2021, he decided to run for the position of grand chief under a platform of transparency and accountability.
Following the election, after Simon and Meilleur had been ousted from Council, Bonspille was caught off-guard when some of his own chiefs were initially resistant to launching the forensic audit mandated by the community.
During the meeting on Tuesday, Harding questioned chief John Canatonquin, the head of the finance portfolio at the MCK and longest serving member on Council, about his knowledge regarding the alleged fraud within the ERU.
According to Harding, Canatonquin denied having any knowledge of the supposed misuse of pandemic aid and stated that after he transferred the money to KHC he was in the dark about what transpired next.
“I heard a lot of different comments, but I think people in general were a bit shocked in some senses,” said Harding. “And I think they are also looking for some kind of restitution, something to make this right.”
Harding added that he felt that many people still owed the community answers. “I am hoping that there is going to be retribution,” said Bonspille.
“I am hoping that there is going to be some type of pay back to the community. And these individuals that have taken from our community at a critical time, they need to be reprimanded to the full extent of the law.”
One particularly incriminating finding in the audit outlined how a fridge and freezer room costing a total of $36,618 was purchased from an ERU member’s individual registered company. The payment for this purchase was initially issued to the numbered company but subsequently cancelled and re-issued in the member’s name.
Simon spoke with The Eastern Door after the meeting and said that he felt like this was an attempt by Bonspille and Tomlinson to redirect the community’s attention by ignoring the ERU’s accomplishment of keeping the community safe during an unprecedented time.
“The food distribution, the hot meals to the elders, the extra $300 to SA recipients, the security and organizing of test sites and vaccination. So, when it comes to the chronology, they are using these trigger words to incite hatred and more division,” said the former grand chief.
“Was it ethical? I don’t know, but the only thing that mattered to me was the protection of my community. I didn’t give a damn what the government had distributed to do that.”
Simon maintains that he only received his chief’s pay from the MCK. Additionally, he said that these salaries were approved by the federal government after two proposals were sent at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The top-offs (ERU wages) were all in the proposal to the federal government, which was accepted. Now, if they had a legal leg to stand on to charge me or anybody else with any crime, they would have done it a long time ago. They have had a year.”
Simon said that the salaries follow federal guidelines when it comes to contractual consultants. He said that he does not believe that any criminal acts were committed.
“The members of the ERU did not seek out these amounts. It was offered to them. During that process, I was there only for political reasons to make sure that the ERU remained within its mandate,” said Simon.
“Of course, I knew eventually how much the compensations were and even I was scratching my head, but I came to the conclusion that I don’t care, the community was protected, and we saved lives.”
When The Eastern Door told Bonspille about the proposals allegedly sent and authorized by the federal government, he replied: “I can’t see any government, whether it’s federal or provincial, approving salaries that exceed the prime minister’s salary.”
In the fall of 2021, a new board of directors was elected at KHC. Subsequently, Bonspiel-Nelson was put on administrative leave with pay and was eventually terminated in December. Attempts to contact her made by The Eastern Door went unanswered.
Since taking over KHC, Tomlinson put in place new management that is currently working on fixing administrative shortcomings within the organization. He is also working on restructuring the health centre to enhance service delivery and to ensure fair, ethical and sound management practices.
Meilleur did not return requests for comment. After the meeting, calls for retribution intensified within the territory, and many are hoping the SQ investigation leads to criminal charges.
Cross would also like to see independent oversight implemented at the MCK and KHC.
“This audit was conducted by an independent auditing firm. Numbers don’t lie. I believe that this forensic audit needs to go further into the flood monies that were received in 2017 to 2019 for further analysis,” he said.
Marisela Amador, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door