Chief urges probe of casino cash to ‚phoney‘ band

Ottawa – Lawyers for the Ontario government are looking into Casino Rama payments made to a First Nation that doesn’t officially exist, as at least one chief calls for an official investigation.

The Chiefs of Ontario voted earlier this month to de-list and cut off Poplar Point First Nation, a so-called „near band“ that operated out of a storefront in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A phone number posted on its website is now out of service, and the federal Indian Affairs department says it doesn’t recognize the community – 10 years after the man claiming to be its hereditary chief and a small group of supporters began receiving Rama cash that has totalled about USD 3 million.

Chief Wilfred King of the Gull Bay First Nation in northern Ontario is calling for a formal probe. He says the Poplar Point members are actually on his own band list, something they conceded at an assembly meeting before chiefs voted to turf them as an accepted band.

King wants to know why funds from the casino near Orillia, Ont. – meant to help lift Ontario reserves out of poverty – flowed for a decade to a „phoney community.“

„Where did the money go? That’s the question.

„I think this is something that perhaps the Ontario government should investigate. Someone should follow through.“

Amy Tang, acting spokeswoman for George Smitherman, the Ontario minister responsible for casinos, said lawyers for the province are looking into the Poplar Point issue.

But the province has no plans at this time to intervene, she said today.

„We do have our legal department looking at what happens in this particular case.“

That said, it’s up to the Chiefs of Ontario to oversee how Casino Rama money is disbursed by a five-member management board called the Ontario First Nations Limited Partnership, she said.

„We do respect that governing structure that they’ve put in place.“

The vote earlier this month by a large majority of chiefs to de-list Poplar Point now means that 132 First Nations will receive Rama cash instead of 133.

Yearly reports are required to ensure they spend a total of about USD 60 million a year in five approved areas: community development, health, education, economic and cultural development.

Payments are then disbursed by the Ontario First Nations Limited Partnership, an oversight body that reports to the province.

Those spending accounts, however, are not subject to value-for-money scrutiny by provincial auditors under the terms of a complex deal with the government. That’s because the gambling revenues essentially never enter provincial coffers. They’re held in trust by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. before going directly to reserves through the First Nations partnership group.

Public spending watchdogs such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have repeatedly raised concerns over the lack of accessible Rama reporting.

Poplar Point payments were cited in Rama audits released in May to The Canadian Press after a lengthy freedom-of-information fight with the province.

King had fruitlessly tried for years to get the Chiefs of Ontario to act.

John Beaucage, grand council chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, says his 42 member First Nations struck Poplar Point from the union’s list of bands years ago because of its lack of effort to be recognized by Ottawa.

The broader Chiefs of Ontario assembly was slower to act as Rama payments continued to flow.

„I guess they were given the benefit of the doubt,“ Beaucage said. „And once they were in … the so-called process, you just sort of go about all the other things you’ve got to worry about.

„Maybe if there was a criminal aspect to it … a fraudulent misrepresentation, then an investigation should be launched by the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police).“

Beaucage plans to raise the matter in a meeting next month with the political confederacy of Ontario grand chiefs.