'I will repay every debt I have': Businesswoman Heather Abbey promises to repay $62,000 of public money

Creative Saskatchewan has asked businesswoman Heather Abbey to repay $62,000 of taxpayers' money after she failed to deliver on two proposed projects in the past two years.

Allegations of financial mismanagement and broken promises prompted the arts agency to audit five projects undertaken by Abbey and her e-commerce company Indig Inc. that received more than $160,000 total in taxpayers' money between 2015 and 2019. 

The audit concluded that Abbey met expectations for three grants, worth nearly $100,000, that helped to fund, among other things, website design and training for Indigenous artists to create leather mittens and beaded earrings.

The two failed projects include a trade mission to Japan for Indigenous artists from Saskatchewan and a retail space for Indigenous artists in a Saskatoon shopping mall.

Abbey calls this conclusion "fantastic news."

"I originally offered to repay every cent I've ever accessed from funding for the projects, however Creative Sask. wanted to do their due diligence," Abbey told CBC News. "Being cleared of misconduct in all closed grants is a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and I will be making good on both grant payments to date on the two open projects."

Other unpaid loans and rent

However, the arts agency may have to get in line to collect money from Abbey, who has several outstanding debts registered against any property she might own. Government records and court documents show two credit unions and two landlords are seeking $64,000 from Abbey for unpaid loans and rent.

"We begin, of course, by requesting the money be repaid," said Craig Lederhouse, communications director for Creative Saskatchewan. "If that does not happen, we will proceed to consider all options available to us. Every decision we make ... will be based on respecting and protecting public funds."

Abbey, 38, is an entrepreneur from Little Pine First Nation and has won numerous awards and government grants for empowering Indigenous artists and her much-lauded website Indig Inc. — an e-commerce platform that allows Indigenous artists to sell their homemade products. It is now offline.

Submitted by Heather Abbey

In August, a CBC News investigation revealed that only three of 15 participants who went on the Japan trade mission were actually based in Saskatchewan, as required by the grant, and that Abbey had left unpaid bills in Tokyo — including $15,000 in cancellation and no-show fees at a Tokyo hotel.

Indigenous artists said they were disappointed in the trip, and confused about where Creative Saskatchewan grant money was spent.

Further investigation also revealed that Abbey had collected roughly $25,000 to set up a retail space for Indigenous artists in a Saskatoon mall. She hadn't done it yet, and told CBC News in September 2019 that she no longer planned to.

Abbey also said none of her actions were malicious or fraudulent, rather that some business gambles didn't pan out.

'I wasn't always the best at making choices'

The province's personal property registry reveals two credit unions and two landlords have registered judgments from a court of law that would allow a sheriff to seize and sell Abbey's property, if and when she owns any.

Conexus Credit Union filed a statement of claim at Court of Queen's Bench in 2016 alleging that Abbey took out a loan for $31,052 in 2015 to finance her company Shop.Indigenous.ca (the predecessor of Indig Inc.). The credit union alleged that Abbey neglected or refused to pay back the loan.

That same year, Saskatchewan's Office of Residential Tenancies ordered Abbey to pay her Saskatoon landlords $2,350 for unpaid rent and cleaning costs. Another landlord registered a debt of $4,717.

"I plan to repay every debt I have," Abbey told CBC News on Wednesday, when asked about her outstanding debts.

She said that she struggled for years to stay afloat as a single mother and aspiring businesswoman.

Submitted by Agnes Woodward

"Sometimes there were literal choices of whether to keep the power on, or make a payment on A, B, C, or D," Abbey said. "I wasn't always the best at making choices and I struggled a lot — and I mean, a lot."

She adds that even amid her struggles, she helped a lot of people and succeeded in many ways, and she feels that has been lost in the recent controversy.

"Right now is the first downtime I've had in years, where it's not the constant stress and struggle. Clarity and hindsight are great teachers, and I feel like I've made every mistake in the book," Abbey said. "Now I get to devote time to fixing them and becoming a better person that doesn't jump into things without research and a solid plan."

Creative Sask. creates new complaint process

CBC's investigation of alleged financial mismanagement uncovered numerous stories from business partners and contractors who claimed Abbey didn't pay them.

In the wake of that, Creative Saskatchewan has decided to create a formal process to document complaints from the public against grant holders in the future.

"We want to be able to manage those complaints formally and to ensure that they are considered carefully moving forward, should that applicant apply for future grant funding," Lederhouse said.

Alicia Bridges/CBC

Frank Collins, CEO of Saskatoon-based Danger Dynamite, said Abbey commissioned him to design a website and produce marketing materials for Indig Inc. She collected roughly $61,000 from Creative Saskachewan in grant money for that project but Collins says she didn't pay him tens of thousands of dollars that she owed him.

Collins never pursued legal action.

He said he called Creative Saskatchewan on March 5, 2019 to alert them about issues related to Abbey's business practices.

"Creative Saskatchewan completely washed their hands of it," he said.

Lederhouse says the arts agency has no plans to intervene in business disputes but going forward, it will record those complaints and process them appropriately so future funding decisions would be better informed.

Lederhouse also said that it's "infrequent" that a Creative Saskatchewan grant recipient doesn't deliver on their project as promised and that grant recipients are generally "very good" at returning money.