Its No Accident that What Happens at Yellow Quill . . . Happens

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

What Will Rogers – the late great Cherokee Indian, cowboy and American humorist – once said about the U.S. Congress is beginning to sound just about right for life on the Yellow Quill reserve: “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”

God knows, the people of that sprawling place about 250 kilometres east of Saskatoon have had such a battering that just writing about them, even for a week or two, is exhausting.

Against a background of poverty, that learned dependence that sometimes seems fostered by government policy and the legacy of residential schools, the Yellow Quill reserve members also spent years living under a boil-water alert; have a band chief and council who have been pretty much at war with one another for years, with the result that the band has spent almost a decade under third-party management, which means its key finances are handled by an outside professional firm; are beset by alcoholism and familial sexual abuse; and, for good measure, recently saw two of their most vulnerable citizens, Santana and Kaydance Pauchay, freeze to death in the snow.

With all of that, it may seem like peanuts that five years ago, some funds destined to help survivors of physical and sexual abuse may have gone awry and ended up in the pockets of two former band councillors and the relative of a third.

I spent several days writing about the missing funds this week and there were times that it felt downright undignified to be doing it: At issue is just $60,000 and whatever happened happened almost four years ago.

For those of you who missed this riveting (yes, I am being ironic) series of stories, let me summarize.

The money at issue was the final payment of a three-grant project funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, whose mission is to help aboriginal people heal from their residential school experiences.

At the time of the last payment, the project was behind in the mandatory paperwork (chiefly, the second audit of the books) and had borrowed from the reserve health clinic to stay afloat. But as AHF executive director Mike DeGagne says, all reports on the work the project was doing were good; the auditor had written asking if the money was forthcoming, which indicated he was on the job and, just as they were about to release the funds, that second audit arrived.

The AHF released the dough in October of 2004. Only the following fall did a letter alleging wrongdoing and a package of documents arrive at the AHF office.

The AHF moved to investigate, but, with the band having sent all project documents to the Saskatoon Tribal Council and the RCMP aware of the allegations, they were effectively waved off. The two native groups are in a bit of an inter-organizational punch-up about who is responsible for the delay in getting to the bottom of things, but the end result is that three-years-plus after the fact, no one has any answers, least of all the poor son-of-a-gun who first tried to blow the whistle.

Mr. DeGagne has pledged to get those answers: “We’re going to make sure it happens.”

Why this is important has less to do with the money, whether it was squandered or misspent or simply badly explained. What this part of the story illustrates is the truth of an old saying, often apparently heard at native meetings: “You put a little bit in the middle of the table and then everyone fights for the scraps.”

At reserves like Yellow Quill – and yes, there are many reserve success stories, but this is not one – there are two separate but interconnected problems.

One is that the talent pool – for running projects or businesses, for being on council – is extremely shallow. There are only a few people capable of running things, with the result that, as Mr. DeGagne says, “governance is still deeply personal” and power tends to end up concentrated in a few hands, with the attendant risks.

The other is that most people have so damned little that anyone who appears to be doing even a little better is immediately suspect.

Mr. DeGagne remembers, shortly after starting at the AHF, getting a phone call from a woman who was convinced that something was fishy with a project on her reserve. Pressed for a reason for her suspicions, she reported that her sister-in-law just bought a new washing machine and said, “There’s no other way she could have got the money.”

Aside from the obvious – that if funds aimed for sexual abuse survivors were misspent or pilfered, it is surely a new low – the real attraction of the story for me was the lack of accountability and transparency. Yellow Quill surely deserves to know how this money was spent, and to be assured that if there was incompetence or malfeasance, those responsible are held to account.

When I was on the reserve, the week before last, what struck me was the monumental apathy I saw. Many people are so defeated, so numbed, they actually couldn’t rouse themselves to offer to help the social worker, grandmother and police who were searching for the bodies of those little girls in the snow – it was as if they already knew that the story would turn out as horribly as it did.

There are folks at Yellow Quill who give a damn. There just aren’t enough of them. Yet.

I saw some bright, gorgeous children, full of promise, when I was there. They deserve better than this stew of sloppiness, incompetence, booze, incest and pain.

They deserve to know how their money is spent, every cent of it. They deserve to know that there are links between good governance and a good life, that, as the Frontier Centre’s Aboriginal Governance Index notes, “there are correlations between low infant mortality and low levels of corruption, a strong rule of law and high levels of literacy and accountability on one hand and per capita income within the community on the other.”

And they need to know that the reserve with a dysfunctional government is more likely to see two of its own freeze to death than the reserve with a band council that actually works. That this happened here, at this place, is no bloody accident.