SCO chiefs threaten to leave over spending controversy

Two Manitoba chiefs are threatening to pull out of the Southern Chiefs' Organization (SCO) after its grand chief was suspended with pay, along with his chief of staff, at a meeting earlier this week.

Amount of funds alleged to have been misused is now believed closer to $40,000

Murray Clearsky was suspended with pay as grand chief of the Southern Chiefs' Organization earlier this week.

Two Manitoba chiefs are threatening to pull out of the Southern Chiefs' Organization (SCO) after its grand chief was suspended with pay, along with his chief of staff, at a meeting Monday night.

The chiefs say they also learned at that meeting that the amount of the organization's money alleged to have been misused is higher than the $10,000 withdrawn using a debit card during Grand Chief Murray Clearsky's trips to Minnesota.

Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches said his understanding, after reviewing documents presented by staff and a "whistleblower" on Monday, is the amount is closer to $40,000.

"Those are not cash advances, those were cash withdrawals on a debit card that happened numerous times over a long period of time that amount to $40,000," Meeches told CBC News.

Swan Lake Chief Francine Meeches said she was unclear about the exact amount, but she said it was much higher than $10,000.

"There's other purchases like places where the organization wouldn't shop, let's put it that way," she said.

The Southern Chiefs Organization suspended Clearsky with pay on Monday over allegations of misusing funds at a casino and amusement park in Minnesota.

Clearsky's chief of staff, Michael Bear, was also suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an outside audit.

Staff with SCO, which represents 33 chiefs in southern Manitoba, came forward last week accusing Clearsky of withdrawing thousands of dollars in cash advances at automatic teller machines in Minnesota.

On Aug. 19, four withdrawals totalling $839.08 were made at Valleyfair, an amusement park in the U.S. state, and over two days — Sept. 17 and 18 — a number of withdrawals totalling $9,655.25 were made at ATMs in and around Shakopee, Minn.

'His own personal card'

Clearsky told CBC News before Monday's emergency meeting in Winnipeg that "the chiefs knew about [the withdrawals], and knew what it was for."

But Francine Meeches scoffed at that when asked if she knew. 

"Maybe the close friends of his [knew] but the rest of us didn't," she said.

Meeches said the documents the chiefs were shown on Monday, including transactions on SCO's chequing account for July, August and September, prove one thing to her. 

"He used it as his own personal card," she said. "That's just the reality of it all."

Meeches said Clearsky admitted that he used the funds, but said they were to repair his truck.

"He sat there, like, he basically said he took the money, he took the withdrawals, yes he did, but he doesn't think that there's anything wrong," she said.

Meeches said she didn't buy Clearsky's explanation, saying that she, too, has visited a casino in Shakopee, Minn., and used the ATM to play the slot machines.

"Why else would you take money out of an ATM at a casino, right? You're going to gamble. What else are you going to do?" she said.

Swan Lake First Nation may leave SCO

Meeches said she was frustrated that some of the other chiefs were not critical enough of Clearsky and seemed to want to help him justify the spending. She walked out of Monday's meeting early.

"Come on," she told the chiefs. "What is it that you don't see?"

Meeches said Swan Lake First Nation may pull out of the Southern Chiefs' Organization because of the scandal.

"I'm sure that there's going to be First Nations that are probably going to end up withdrawing from this organization because of this," she said, adding that in her opinion, the organization may be beyond repair.

"If we're going to associate ourselves with corruption like that, then we're just as guilty."

No charges have been laid, and there has been no finding of corruption. Murray Clearsky has not responded to requests for comment since he was suspended. 

Dennis Meeches said what he saw at Monday's meeting convinced him the grand chief should resign. He said he was the only one who asked Clearsky to resign that night.

Meeches said the Long Plain First Nation may pull out of the organization as well. 

"It will be very difficult for Long Plain to be involved in an organization that's been tainted by such a scandal," he said. 

Meeches said he is confident that chiefs on the SCO executive will act quickly to bring in an independent auditor, as chairperson Morris Swan Shannacappo vowed to do on Monday.

But Meeches said if the grand chief is not removed, his course of action is clear.

"If they keep him there, we're out," he said.

Swan Lake's Francine Meeches said the controversy has come at a personal cost for her as well, and she told Clearsky that on Monday night. 

"I told him right then and there, 'You know, I believed in you one time.' I looked right at him. I looked him in the face," she said. "I don't any more because of this."

Sources said a chiefs' summit is planned for Friday, and Clearsky may be permanently removed as grand chief at that time.

CBC News asked several other First Nations organizations if their grand chiefs had debit cards linked to the organizations' accounts.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Assembly of First Nations all said no.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.