It has taken Tannis Blacksmith 33 years to open her eyes to politics on her reserve, and she has a word for her actions, or lack thereof: Shameful.
As recently as mid-November, Blacksmith discovered the location of the chief and council chambers on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), where she has lived most of her life.
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She found it when she showed up with around 40 fellow band members in protest.
“[I had no idea]…if we were even allowed to go there,” she said.
Blacksmith and others were protesting the band’s net debt — $6.2 million — after learning of its growth over the last few years.
“I went to the meeting and then when I found out that our debt [over] the past four years has gone up exponentially, it just freaked me out,” she said.
Blacksmith is a mother to three children and a student at the University College of the North. She plans to become a teacher, and has taken several Manitoba student loans to cover the cost.
She and the other 40 band members who showed up to protest are a small sample of those worried about the issue. At least 300 band members are exchanging opinions in a Facebook group called My OCN, which is open to the community.
Maureen Brown created the group, a forum for discussion about community debt and what she calls a “frightening” way leadership on OCN plans to eliminate it.
“OCN has acquired an outside source to help with…the accumulating debt that is in our community,” Brown said.
That source is The Usand Group. According to the company website, Usand offers services in refinancing or debt consolidation, project-specific financing and resource development financing.
OCN Chief Michael G. Constant did not respond to phone calls, but he said via text message that he would comment on debt-related issues after a community meeting scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Saturday.
But even if Constant isn’t saying much, community members are.
Members of My OCN on Facebook are wondering why their reserve is already paying Usand $12,000 a month to study reserve finances, and why this began in June without community consultation.
That monthly fee is a key reason band members approached chief and council chambers on Nov. 14, where Brown says Constant spoke to them and agreed to Saturday’s community meeting. There, members hope they will find a solution to the growing problem.
But Usand isn’t the only issue they want to address at the meeting.
Band members are concerned about budget decisions that are being made behind closed doors.
That kind of secrecy has been highly criticized, and it helped the federal government push forward the First Nations Financial Transparency Act in March 2013.
The act requires 582 communities under the Assembly of First Nations to post their financial records on the website for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC).
If communities do not post their records, they risk a loss of funding.
Since OCN posted to the AANDC website, band finances trickled in and the records revealed Constant is the highest paid chief in Manitoba with an annual salary of $130,000.
That information did not sit well with Blacksmith, who questioned how a rise in the chief’s salary coincided with a rise in reserve debt.
“How is that even allowed? How has that happened?” she asked.
OCN’s former chief made less than $90,000 per year, and an audit on AANDC’s website for OCN reveals the reserve’s net debt increased from $5 million to $6.2 million within one year.
The audit covers 2013 and 2014 with the fiscal year ending March 31. In 2013, the band’s annual deficit was $2 million. In 2014, it was $3.3 million.
The considerable increase followed.
Blacksmith can’t think of a reason for a net debt to exist at all.
“We created jobs and companies that our people could be employed at and not get handouts,” she said. “I just feel that this direction that chief and council [are] going is not the heart of OCN.”
Blacksmith is referring to revenue generated by businesses OCN created on its own, without the help of provincial or federal funding.
That revenue is listed on AANDC’s website as over $7 million.
On Saturday, Blacksmith plans to attend the meeting armed with an action plan that includes cutting unnecessary spending as soon as possible.
“I don’t want to be malicious and think they are just out for their own. I’m pretty sure they have good hearts and want the best for OCN, and at the same time, so do I,” Blacksmith said, referring to leadership on the reserve.
“[But] their actions are not generating the best interest for OCN.”