Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

Anatomy of a vote-buying scheme: Court documents outline massive alleged fraud on Sask. First Nation

Larry Iron, an Indigenous politician, swore on the record in January 2017 that he traded money for votes during the campaign for the election of chief and council on the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation.

Key witness withdrew from legal action, claiming he struck a deal with band leadership

Larry Iron, a former candidate for council on the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, filed an affidavit claiming the election was corrupted by vote-buying. (Northern Pride)

Larry Iron blew the whistle on himself.

Then, months after providing an intricate account of his own voter fraud, he tried to make the whole thing go away.

So far, he's been mostly successful. 

In January 2017, the Indigenous politician swore on the record that he traded money for votes during the recent election of chief and council on the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, which is about 350 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. He offered bank records to prove it.

I do verily believe that they misappropriated funds from Canoe Lake Cree First Nation. They used these misappropriated funds to purchase votes and influence electors.- Larry Iron's affidavit

Larry's affidavit, combined with almost three full bankers boxes of documents filed in federal court, paint a picture of an elaborate and extensive vote-buying scheme.

It's all included in an application filed by activists from the First Nation, attempting to overturn the results of the Dec. 16, 2016 election.

They alleged that some candidates, "provided money, employment, contracts, cigarettes, gasoline and other valuable consideration to electors and persons that have influence on electors in exchange for the vote of electors."

Larry was one of those activists. Larry was also one of those candidates. And his allegations were the backbone of the case.

A detailed affidavit

Larry swore an affidavit just weeks after the election saying it had been influenced by a vote-buying scheme orchestrated by the chief and a couple of councillors.

"I do verily believe that they misappropriated funds from Canoe Lake Cree First Nation," Larry wrote. "They used these misappropriated funds to purchase votes and influence electors."

Larry's 34-page affidavit says he knew about the plan because he was an active participant. It provides a detailed description of how he and several others used public money to pay band members to vote for a slate of candidates — a slate that included Larry.

The affidavit lays out who Larry paid, how much and on which dates. He provided bank records to back up some of his claims.

None of the claims in the affidavit have been tested in court.

Larry seen as 'incriminating himself'

Leonard Iron, no relation, was one of the activists who joined with Larry in the attempt to overturn the election.

Leonard says he was stunned by the detailed evidence Larry provided and by Larry's willingness to risk being prosecuted.

Leonard Iron is one of the Canoe Lake activists who joined with Larry in an effort to overturn the results of the Dec. 2016 election. (Submitted by Leonard Iron)

According to an affidavit filed by Leonard, Larry told the activists he had been warned by his lawyer, "that what he, Larry Iron, had disclosed contained criminal conduct above and beyond that of vote buying, that he was implicated, that a criminal investigation was a likely event, and that he would be subject to the same legal consequences as others he was accusing if those matters were proven in court."

Under the First Nations Elections Act, the activists' only option was to take the matter to court. 

Larry's decision to proceed gave Leonard and the other activists great confidence.

"We convinced ourselves that if Larry Iron was willing to swear an affidavit in which he would be incriminating himself he could not possibly back out after that," said Leonard.

Leonard and the other activists turned out to be wrong about that.

Larry bails out

Six months later, Larry bailed on the case, requesting his affidavit be withdrawn. In a letter on the court file, Larry said he had reached an agreement with the Chief to enact sweeping reforms on reserve.

In his affidavit, Leonard said Larry showed up at a band meeting at the end of June 2017 to announce he was withdrawing the appeal of the election. Until that point, Larry had been funding the effort.

In addition, Leonard wrote that Larry, "apparently speaking on behalf of the respondents (the chief and some councillors), began offering me employment with the First Nation if I agreed to drop the appeal." 

"Larry Iron advised me that 'You might as well accept. You won't get anywhere without my affidavit anyway.' "

Leonard refused. 

"We wanted this case to continue, especially after we obtained all those documents," Leonard said. "It's insane what they were doing."

For me the case is closed and it's an old story.- Larry Iron

The case collapsed. Leonard said neither the RCMP nor the federal government would do anything to help. 

In a letter to Leonard, the RCMP said the "affidavit serves only as an unsubstantiated allegation," and said the banking records weren't useful because, "documents compelled during a civil proceeding such as this, cannot be used in a criminal proceeding against an individual."

As for the federal government, Leonard said they've been no help either, opting to refer Leonard to the courts or back to the chief and council. He said he's baffled that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is so eager to support democracy around the globe but not here in Canada.

"Why is this guy concerned about fair and even elections in Venezuela when he doesn't care about the same thing on reserves?" Leonard asked. "He's responsible for them and he doesn't do a damn thing about it."

Earlier this month, CBC asked Larry for an interview about his affidavit and Leonard's allegations. He refused. 

"For me the case is closed and it's an old story," Larry told CBC before hanging up.

Todd MacKay with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said that he's heard allegations of voter fraud on First Nations in Saskatchewan for years, but that he's never seen a case with this much sworn evidence. He said his organization is working with the activists to help draw attention to the case. 

Allegations of voter fraud in federal or provincial elections have resulted in aggressive investigations, but the Canoe Lake case has resulted in "one huge collective shrug," McKay said.

He said that, given the seriousness of the allegations on Canoe Lake, "the people there deserve answers and frankly all Canadians deserve answers because this shouldn't be happening anywhere in the world. And it absolutely can't be happening in Canada." 

Larry 'felt betrayed'

In his affidavit, Larry said he had worked with the Chief Francis Iron during the course of the December 2016 election campaign to pay voters to cast ballots for a slate of candidates that included Larry himself, who was running for council.

Elected office on Canoe Lake can be very profitable.

Chief Francis Iron, first elected in 2014, was paid $221,000 in salary and expenses in 2015/2016 to run a reserve of slightly more than 1,000 people, according to the federal government. Councillors were paid as much as $182,000 that same year.

Chief Francis was re-elected, but Larry lost.

According to the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation's Facebook page, Chief Francis Iron was sworn in on March 16, 2017. (Canoe Lake Cree First Nation/Facebook)

Larry was furious, according to Leonard.

"He was supposed to be elected because he was part of that conspiracy and then he felt betrayed by those people because he wasn't elected," Leonard told CBC. 

Leonard's affidavit adds, "his conscience was bothering him about the extent of vote-buying that had occurred, in which he was personally involved and that if he did not come forward, the corrupt activities he had witnessed would escalate." 

An affidavit filed in federal court by band member Margaret Couillonneur said "[Larry] stated to me that he was 'going to get everybody' and that he was going to appeal the results of the election."

Leonard wrote in his affidavit that, days after the election, Larry invited him and several other band members to a restaurant where he "disclosed shocking information about his involvement in a vote buying conspiracy with enough details that it provided credibility to his claim that 'No one else had a chance of winning the election except the ones who ultimately won." 

Leonard and the other activists agreed to work with Larry to overturn the election.

Duelling explanations for payments to band members

In many cases, Chief Francis and another accused councillor Wilfred Iron, in their respective affidavits, seem to agree with Larry on the basic facts.

Chief Francis and Wilfred concede that in the days and weeks leading up to the December 16, 2016 vote they provided Larry with money to give to other band members. 

The primary dispute centres on what the payments were for.

While Larry claims they were given in exchange for votes, Chief Francis and Wilfred deny that and offer a range of other explanations.

Unfortunately, it has been a common practice in elections of Canoe Lake Cree First Nation that candidates offer money or similar such matters in exchange for votes.- Larry Iron's affidavit

Marie Florence Yew, a Canoe Lake band councillor until the December election, filed an affidavit saying many payments described by Larry were not lawfully authorized. 

Yew said that according to the Indian Act, any payments from band accounts must be authorized by band council.

"At no point in time were any of these directives referred to in the affidavit of Larry Amable Iron sworn January 7, 2017, discussed at a band council meeting," she wrote.

Under questioning by lawyers for the activists, Chief Francis conceded that some payments are made without a band council meeting. 

"When emergencies come up, there's no time to call a meeting. You know that. Emergency comes up, family member's in hospital, what are we supposed to do? Oh,wait, I got to call a meeting. Can't say that," said Chief Francis.

He said in other cases, the payments were authorized by an impromptu phone meeting of a quorum of council. 

However, he said in most cases payments from band accounts are authorized at a council meeting.   

Timeline of alleged vote-buying

Late October 2016

The court application to overturn the election describes an October 2016 meeting between Chief Francis and Larry, when they discussed "the prospect of working together to influence the election."

Larry's affidavit says he asked Chief Francis whether there was sufficient funding and the chief told him not to be concerned about money, "as he had everything set up and that he had 'access.' Francis Xavier Iron then indicated that 'Whatever it takes, I need to get back into power.' "

Larry's affidavit says adequate funding is crucial to elections on the First Nation.

"Unfortunately, it has been a common practice in elections of Canoe Lake Cree First Nation that candidates offer money or similar such matters in exchange for votes, or that electors demand the same in exchange for their votes." 

The affidavit claims that Chief Francis offered Larry and two influential female band members, Margaret Coulineur and Malvina Iron, a series of payments between $1,000 and $2,500 in exchange for their assistance and support.

"Francis Xavier Iron then indicated that if he was elected, there would be a further $5,000 in cash paid to each of us, and if he was 'very successful' that a 'bonus' would also be paid."

November 3, 2016

In his affidavit, Chief Francis confirms that on November 3, 2016, he met with Larry, Margaret and Malvina, "to formally ask them for their support in the upcoming … election."

He also confirmed he provided each of them with cheques for $1,500, but said "no discussion occurred with respect to providing any of them with money to secure their support."

In early November 2016, Larry Iron was provided a cheque from Chief Francis Iron. Larry says the money was paid in exchange for his support and assistance during the election. (Federal court)

The chief said he gave Larry the money as an act of charity.

"I often agree to assist band members with money and I agreed to assist Larry Amable Iron with assistance in the amount of $1,500."

He said he gave Margaret and Malvina the money because they agreed to attend a meeting of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) on his behalf. 

In their affidavits, both women agreed they were paid on November 3 and intended to go to the FSIN event. But they both said they were unable to attend. 

However, under cross-examination, the lawyer for the activists pointed out that the FSIN event they agreed to attend happened on October 26 and 27.

Neither woman explained why they accepted payment to attend an event they didn't attend. 

In the midst of that questioning, Margaret said wasn't feeling well and may need a break from the cross-examination. 

"In case I have to, I got to. I can't sit here, and then I'm going to fall over. Then what?"

Both Margaret and Malvina claimed they did volunteer work in exchange for the money rather than repaying the band and they denied making any agreement to support Chief Francis or help him with the election.

November 30, 2016

According to Larry's affidavit, he and Chief Francis delivered a $1,000 cheque to a band member. The cheque had a notation that read, "off reserve assistance."

Chief Francis told the man "if he voted for him that he would continue to support [him] in this way,'" Larry alleged.

In his affidavit, Chief Francis confirmed the payment happened but said it was band assistance money to help the man pay for materials to fix his cabin.

December 2, 2016

Larry said in his affidavit that on December 2, Chief Francis informed him that $700 had been deposited into Larry's bank account. He said the Chief told him the money, "was to set up a meeting for off-reserve members and to plan a supper" hosted by the chief.

Larry's affidavit says Chief Francis Iron told him he was being provided $700 to organize a campaign supper for the chief. (Federal court)

December 5, 2016

Wilfred Iron, a councillor running for re-election, confirms in his own affidavit there was a dinner on December 5 and cheques were handed out.

He wrote that he paid three band members, who he named, $400 each. Documentation he attached shows the word "donation" beside each payment.

Wilfred's affidavit says at that meeting he "received a large number of requests from urban band members seeking assistance from the band with money to pay bills, rent and or purchase groceries."

He said these sorts of requests "are a normal occurrence around the holiday season."

"I specifically deny that any payments or assistance was provided to any band member for the purpose of securing their vote or to unlawfully influence their vote," Wilfred wrote.

December 6, 2016                        

Larry was sent by the chief to the First Nations Bank in Saskatoon, where Canoe Lake had its accounts, to pick up some cash and cheques for people as dictated by a directive prepared by the chief.

Larry says Chief Francis provided him a written list of cheques and cash he was instructed to pick up from the bank. (Federal court)

He wrote that he was surprised to see that Chief Francis was authorizing $4,000 cheques for certain council candidates given that the chief "had previously told me that those persons were not campaigning with us."

According to Larry's affidavit, the chief replied "he had to ensure they all got $4,000 because they all knew about the financial transactions that had occurred… and that if any of them were not successful in the election that $4,000 would ensure their silence 'so they couldn't come after me if they lost in the election.' "

In his affidavit, Chief Francis confirmed that he asked Larry to pick up and deliver the money but denied it was to buy votes. Instead, the chief said, the payments were for travel and honorariums.

In addition to cheques for council candidates, Larry was also instructed to pick up cheques for band members and deposit them into their accounts. 

One of those people, Barry Opekokew, confirmed in an affidavit that a $1,000 cheque had been deposited into his account by Larry.

He said the money wasn't to buy his vote but instead was "for financial assistance to attend Saskatoon for my father-in-law's medical treatment." .

Larry said the chief also told him to pick up $6,000 cash from the bank "to ensure that they had enough money to influence voters and in particular during the elders gathering."

The band had arranged an elders gathering to be held in a Prince Albert hotel on December 6 to 8. The advanced poll was being held in the same hotel in the midst of that elders gathering. 

Canoe Lake paid for the elders hotel and paid each of them $500 cash.

In an interview with CBC, Chief Francis said that money was to help pay for some extra elders who weren't pre-registered for the event.

"I understand it would make it look shady but it had nothing to do with giving money for the election they were just forgotten payments," said the chief.

During cross-examination Canoe Lake's interim manager, Rachel Iron, conceded that the December 2016 payments weren't entered into the band's general ledger until February 2017 — after the election appeal had been launched. 

December 8, 2016

Larry said Chief Francis and Wilfred told him they were depositing another $750 in his bank account, "which they told me was to be used by me to pay band members in exchange for their vote."

In his affidavit, Wilfred said that money wasn't to buy votes but was to cover Larry's expenses travelling back and forth to the bank. 

Chief Francis Iron says he never provided or offered band money in exchange for votes. (Canoe Lake Cree First Nation/Facebook)

Larry said the chief also gave him an additional $900 cash and instructed him to provide it to three men in Meadow Lake with instructions to vote for a slate of candidates that included the chief and Larry. The chief denies this.

Larry said he spent most of this day at a hotel in Saskatoon where he witnessed a steady stream of band members meeting with Chief Francis and Wilfred. Larry said the chief "informed me these band members were collecting cash payments for their votes."

He said that on one occasion, Chief Francis and Wilfred were away so Larry paid two band members $100 dollars each, on direction from the chief.

Chief Francis said he wasn't at that hotel on that date "nor did I hand out money to band members to secure their votes."

December 9, 2016

Larry said the chief provided him $300 cash to pass on to a couple of named band members. The chief denies this.

In addition, Larry said the chief sent him an email transfer of $200 to provide to a female band member.

The chief confirms making that $200 payment but he denied the money was election related.

Instead he said it was an assistance payment made to Larry directly because of his "inability to pay his basic bills."

December 13, 2016

Larry's affidavit says the chief wanted to send another $2,500 to Larry "for payments to various voters prior to the main poll on December 16."

Larry said this time he expressed some reservation.

"I was concerned with the number of transfers that I was receiving and my inability to explain them. I refused to accept any further direct transfers," the affidavit says.

According to Larry's affidavit, Chief Francis suggested transferring money to Larry's son Keith Iron instead. Larry said the chief indicated that in the bands books, he would make it appear "as payment in relation to work that Keith Iron had done."

Keith's account received a transfer of $2,500.

In an affidavit, Keith confirms he received the money and passed most of it on to his father. 

Larry's affidavit says this bank statement shows that Chief Francis Iron had $2,500 transferred to Larry's son Keith, which Keith then immediately transferred to Larry. (Federal court)

"My father confided in me that he had grown uncomfortable with so much money being transferred into his personal bank account from the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation without any documentation as to why such deposits were occurring," Keith said in his affidavit.

In his affidavit, Chief Francis said the payment was for work Keith had done on the Canoe Lake store.

However, Keith's affidavit says "I did not perform any work or provide any other services nor had I agreed to perform work or provide services for the First Nation for which I should be paid."

December 14 & 15, 2016

Larry said he went to the home of a band member where he delivered $100 cheques to five people, all of whom are named in the affidavit. Larry directed them to vote for a slate of candidates that included Chief Francis and himself.

Larry said he went back to that same home, delivering another eight $100 cheques and directing the band members who received them to vote for a slate of candidates that included Chief Francis and himself.

The chief's affidavit says "this money was not provided for these alleged purposes."

Several of the people alleged by Larry to have been paid in exchange for their vote filed affidavits denying having received any such payment. 

December 16, 2016 - Election Day

Larry said the chief told him to pick up a female band member, give her $200 and ask her to pick up three men, who are named in the affidavit, from a neighbouring First Nation and bring them to a polling station.

The woman was to tell the men if they voted for the chief's slate of candidates he would give them $200 each.

Larry also claims the chief told the woman to fill up her tank at the band store and charge it to the First Nation's account.

Larry backs out, killing court case

In June 2017, many of the people who filed affidavits supporting or opposing the motion to overturn the election were cross-examined by lawyers. 

Leonard says he was there for all of it and was very pleased with how it was going.

However, on the final day, Larry approached Leonard to say he was bailing out.

Leonard's affidavit says that's when Larry offered to get him a job if he also agreed to drop the case. Leonard refused. 

On July 7, 2017, Larry wrote the lawyer representing him, requesting that his affidavit and those of his sons be withdrawn. "We are requesting that the parties involved can no longer use our affidavits in this case."

When reached by CBC earlier this month, Larry seemed to be under the impression that by sending that letter, the affidavit was no longer public.

"They were all taken out from the court system," Larry told CBC when reached by phone. "There's no affidavits in there." CBC pointed out that his affidavit is still on the public record in federal court.

Shortly after pulling out of the court case, Larry began campaigning for vice-chief at the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, the second-in-command for the organization, which represents nine northwest Saskatchewan First Nations.

Larry won the job in November 2017 after having received more support from the 49 appointed delegates than his closest competitor.

'A one time opportunity to deal with this issue'

In a July 2017 letter to the law society about the matter, Larry said he ended the court case because he had reached an agreement with the leadership of the First Nation to enact sweeping reforms.

"The community has been faced with this kind of behaviour for the last 20 years," he wrote. "We now have a one time opportunity to deal with this issue head on with the community members and guaranteed this will never happen again in our election process."

He claimed that in exchange for withdrawing his affidavit, "Chief Francis along with his council have agreed to inact (sp) a advisory council and have allowed my team and complainants to be part of the process."

He also claimed they agreed to develop and implement a new financial management act, an executive act and a financial audit committee.

When reached by phone earlier this month, Chief Francis denied any such agreement.

"There was no deal made between the band and Larry," said the chief. "I'll leave it at that."

When asked if he had made any of the reforms Larry claimed were coming, the chief provided a simple answer.



Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001.