The Southern Chiefs' Organization, which represents 33 chiefs in southern Manitoba, has been rocked by allegations the grand chief made thousands of dollars worth of cash withdrawals at locations in Minnesota, including a casino and an amusement park.
Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches says a number of chiefs met with staff members this week, where they were shown bank statements and other documents.
It is alleged that Grand Chief Murray Clearsky made cash withdrawals on an SCO chequing account at automatic teller machines in Minnesota.
On Aug. 19, four withdrawals totalling $839.08 were made at Valleyfair, an amusement park in Minnesota.
Over two days, Sept. 17 and 18, a number of withdrawals totalling $9,655.25 were made at ATMs in and around Shakopee, Minn.
Sources say both those amounts include bank charges for the exchange rate. On business trips for SCO, cash withdrawals are not typical, the sources added.
'It's in chaos over there'
Meeches said staff also made serious complaints about harassment and intimidation by one of the executives at SCO.
"They expressed their concerns about the working environment, the mismanagement, the casino withdrawals — you know, $10,000 that were made, I think it was Minneapolis, Shakopee," he said.
"It's a casino over there. Like, there's a lot of concerns, apparently. Quite a bit. It's in chaos over there."
Meeches said a committee of executive chiefs tried to hold an emergency meeting earlier this week, but some of the chiefs weren't able to make it. He called on them to deal with the matter immediately.
"That organization [SCO] represents the southern First Nations in Manitoba and there's a lot of staff that work there," he said.
"There's some good program dollars that we've been receiving from government and we can't be mismanaging it."
A financial statement for the Southern Chiefs' Organization obtained by CBC News shows that last year, SCO received $1,502,489 in government funding from the following sources:
- $839,119 from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
- $299,697 from Health Canada.
- $67,252 from federal Department of Justice.
- $63,000 Status of Women (Canada).
- $233,421 from the Province of Manitoba.
Meeches said Clearsky's future as SCO's grand chief should be on the table.
"My personal opinion? The grand chief has put himself in a very, very difficult situation and chiefs may be calling for his resignation," he said.
Other chiefs aren't ready to make any decisions yet. Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine said the first step is to investigate the allegations.
"We're obviously concerned because the integrity of the organization, the integrity of the people, is at stake here," he said. "So this is a serious matter that we'll look at as chiefs."
Fontaine said he has seen some of the documentation the staff provided, but he added that there are two sides to every story and he's willing to hear the grand chief's explanation.
"My reaction is, OK, here it is. So what does it mean? Why did he withdraw it?" he said.
"I don't know why he withdrew it. I don't know if it was allowed to be withdrawn. I don't know what the circumstance is."
Jacqueline Romanow, a researcher in aboriginal politics at the University of Winnipeg, says she has never heard of chiefs having direct access to their organizations' bank accounts.
It's up to the federal government to ensure that the groups it funds are held to account, Romanow added.
"I think it's terrible because we always hear stories in the news about how much money is spent on First Nations and the assumption is that it's actually going to, you know, First Nations people," she said.
In an email sent late Friday, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said it has not received any allegations of financial mismanagement at the Southern Chiefs' Organization.
The spokesperson said the federal department is urging the SCO's executive chiefs "to immediately address these spending allegations," noting that First Nation chiefs, councils and organizations are accountable to their members.
Grand chief feels 'betrayed'
On Thursday, Clearsky wouldn't comment directly on the allegations, saying only that he was in Minnesota for a meeting.
Later in the day, when asked again about the withdrawals, he said, "The chiefs knew about it and knew what it was for."
Clearsky said has been a difficult week.
"I just feel betrayed by some of our own people," he said.
"I haven't seen all the allegations. I haven't seen any. Like, no chief came to me and said, 'Hey, is this true?' Or, 'What happened? Tell us.' Nobody came forth to ask me anything. These allegations just all of a sudden — bang."
Clearsky said he is planning to meet with all the chiefs next week.
Staff have also alleged that an SCO executive created a toxic work environment and was being protected by the grand chief. Clearsky would not comment on that allegation, and the executive could not be reached for comment.
Meeches said it's very upsetting to hear about the turmoil at the offices of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, but he felt it was important to be frank so the issues could be dealt with.
Meeches said management problems should not get in the way of what's important for First Nations and what he's focusing on.
"To me, it's all about economy and jobs," he said. "We got to put our people to work and, to me, that's the bottom line."