Health Agency Accused of Squandering Millions

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Frontier Centre, Healthcare, Role of Government, Worth A Look

An aboriginal health-care agency spent more than $6.4 million in federal funds on expensive trips to Hawaii, New Zealand, Norway and Israel, as well as lavish spa pedicures, facials and massages, a source inside Health Canada said Friday.

The details of how Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin misspent millions of dollars of public money have not been released publicly yet, but a Health Canada official told the Winnipeg Free Press a federal government audit found millions of dollars went towards exotic vacations and spa visits unrelated to health services.

Fairford First Nation band councillor John Sanderson said his community of 2,800 has struggled to provide dental benefits and health services for its members ever since Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin was launched.

Sanderson said the community has been running a deficit in order to pay for dental benefits, since many residents weren’t receiving any federal funds. He said chiefs in Manitoba’s Interlake region kept band members and councillors in the dark about where the money was going.

“We’re mad, but what do you do when you elect a chief and council that are supposed to look out for your best interest?” he said.

“(We) want better answers and want to know who’s accountable.”

Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin was launched in 1996 and touted as a “model” for First Nations health care. It was responsible for overseeing community nursing stations and providing dental, pharmacare and vision care to 7,500 aboriginal residents living on and off-reserve in the Interlake.

But a federal audit into Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin’s questionable spending, released Thursday, found the organization misspent 11 per cent of the $56.9 million it received from Health Canada between 1997 and 2005.

NDP finance critic Judy WasylyciaLeis said she believes the latest scandal is tied into an internal scheme in Health Canada to use the aboriginal community to abuse public funds.

She said a public inquiry should be launched to uncover the department insiders who were in charge of the flow of money to native communities.

“It points to a serious problem inside Health Canada in terms of mismanagement and abuse of public funds,” the Winnipeg North MP said.

“What is so shocking is here we are six or seven years later and we still haven’t got to the bottom of it and we still haven’t identified the precise problem that led to this abuse of public funds.”

Health Canada first flagged Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin for its spending habits after a 1998 audit.

In 2000, the Virginia Fontaine Addictions Foundation scandal erupted when Health Canada found that millions of taxpayers’ dollars were spent on trips, cars and jewelry instead of curbing addiction problems in native communities.

The department broadened its investigation into its native health branch and found Paul Cochrane, the head of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, accepted more than $200,000 in bribes in exchange for allowing millions of dollars to flow into the Virginia Fontaine Centre.

On Thursday, Health Minister Tony Clement dismissed the claim that there is an internal flaw in Health Canada, and said the government has introduced strict accountability legislation to prevent any misuse of public funds.

The Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin audit has been turned over to the RCMP for further investigation.

RCMP Cpl. Chris Ballard was unable to provide details, but said the investigation likely will track more people and organizations linked to Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin.

“Whether it’s going to link into other people, other organizations . . . most certainly it will,” he said. “But to what extent, I don’t know.”