Shuswap reserve chooses new council after spending became key issue in band election

A member of the new council elected for the small Shuswap First Nation near Invermere, B.C., says excessive spending spurred band members to vote for change.

Documents show millions unaccounted for despite lack of housing, education

A band election was held Friday on the Shuswap First Nation, which is located near Invermere, B.C. (CBC)

A member of the new council elected for the small Shuswap First Nation near Invermere, B.C., says excessive spending spurred band members to vote for change.

The reserve has had the same chief for more than three decades, but the band's finances recently came to light under a new federal law.

"The majority of us are just elated and happy, and we've had tears and crying for joy and happiness," said Barb Coté, who was successful in her bid for re-election. "Finally we have people that will do something for the community for a change."

Coté is joined by new councillors Tim Eugene and Rosalita Pascal. The three elected councillors will now vote on who will be chief.

Shuswap Chief Paul Sam and councillor Alice Sam emphasize the scale of their nation’s traditional territory following a meeting in this file photo. (Dan Walton/The Columbia Valley Pioneer)

About 200 band members were eligible to vote in Friday's band election, although fewer than 90 people live on the reserve. 

The unofficial ballot count gave Coté 72 votes, Eugene 55 votes and Pascal 51 votes. 

Paul Sam — the nation's chief for more than 30 years — received 34 votes. His ex-wife Alice Sam, who was a councillor, received 48 votes.

Many on the reserve have asked questions for more than a decade about the band's spending, even going so far as to occupy the band office demanding answers that were not known until recently.

The Shuswap band's documents show Chief Sam and his ex-wife were paid more than $200,000 a year — nearly four times more than Coté.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked

Coté thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the federal government for the new legislation.

"The First Nations Transparency Act came in, and it actually showed what the previous council was doing — spending all our money on places that were not for the people," said Coté.

Under the new act, First Nations must post their audited financial statements for the last fiscal year online.

Each member of the new council comes from three different families. Coté hopes there can now be transparency and economic development.

Council member Barb Coté had major concerns about how the band's finances were being run, but she hasn't had access to its financial statements in the past. (CBC)

She was elected two years ago, but was not given an office or much of a role in the band.

"From the moment I walked in the door as the new councillor I have been given no information," she said before the election results came in. "I have been shut out."

Coté says it's an example of how the band's chief and his ex-wife have run the nation for more than 30 years.

She was the only band councillor who was not a member of the Sam family. 

Coté also claims the chief did not allow her to look at any audits or financial statements.

Those financial statements were eventually released when the band was forced to make their books public.

Some living without running water

It's also alleged that millions more in unexplained expenses funded Chief Sam and his family's lavish lifestyle.

Expenditures under the category of "other" totalled nearly $2.5 million over two years.

"Really nice big Harleys, big trucks. Just lots of trips," said Coté.

She says she believes that tens of millions could have been misspent by Chief Sam and his family over the last three decades while other band members were told there was no money for education and home improvements. 

Ida Rivers is one of those people. She has been living without running water or an indoor toilet for more than a year and a half.

Ida Rivers has been ​l​iving without running water or an indoor toilet for more than a year. (CBC)

"No, it's not fun," she said. "It gets cold going up to the mine road and getting water in the winter." 

Rivers says she asked Chief Sam for help, but little has changed.

"One year after elections I had asked him for help and he says, 'I don't see that I should have to because you don't vote for me anyway,'" she said. 

Band member Cecilia Teneese told CBC News last week that she has also been denied a house on the reserve for 20 years.

CBC tried repeatedly to speak with Chief Sam or other members of his family but were told they were unavailable.


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