Original Published on Nov 08, 2022 at 11:17
By Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter; Eve Cable, The Eastern Door; Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
No one will be held criminally responsible following more than three years of investigations into the housing scandal that rocked the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), the MCK announced Thursday.
According to MCK executive director Onerahtókha Marquis, the Quebec crown found that the evidence gathered against the investigation’s target was not sufficient to support charges.
“It is unfortunate, but the crown ultimately determined that the administrative issues within the housing and accounting departments would make it difficult to secure a conviction,” she said.
“We are now at a time where we must turn the page on what was a sad, very frustrating chapter in MCK’s history.”
The scandal, in many ways, has been the face of a housing crisis in Kahnawake. At least 131 people are in need of housing services within the next two to three years, according to a March survey.
In 2018, community members sounded the alarm after being threatened with eviction over missing payments they had made – some even had receipts going back years to support their claims. The MCK housing department was quickly embroiled in a scandal as it became clear that irregularities had occurred, raising the spectre of major fraud.
The subsequent criminal investigation examined the period from 2010 to 2018. The final housing assessment report revealed that in the spring of 2019, $695,000 was unaccounted for. However the cost of the scandal has since ballooned to more than $1 million, including subsequent costs such as legal fees and labour costs, Marquis said.
“Over 30 community members came forward to tell their stories, and over 24 affidavits stated that they had paid their accounts in cash to the social housing administrator at her request,” said Marquis.
“Community members also swore under oath that the social housing administrator asked them to pay her in such public places as at a bar, at the bank, and at her house, including by Interac transfer to her personal account,” she continued.
“We found non-MCK receipts in the housing department office totaling over $190,000, and only a little over $30,000 of which ended up in clients’ accounts.”
Marquis added that community members were discouraged from paying by cheque or debit, instead being pushed to meet in person. Most ended up paying cash.
According to Kahnawake Peacekeeper chief Dwayne Zacharie, the true amount lost to this alleged scheme may never be known.
“There’s no way of telling exact amounts, so there’s no way for us to put an exact dollar figure on this,” Zacharie said. This missing information played an important role in the crown’s decision not to prosecute.
According to Zacharie, investigators and Peacekeepers are disappointed with the resolution – or lack thereof – of this case.
“We wanted to be able to give people closure and feel like there was going to be someone held accountable,” said Zacharie.
He said administrative problems between the accounting department and the housing department made it difficult to track precise amounts and where money was going.
“We have tons of evidence with receipts and that type of thing,” Zacharie said. “We have many, many fraudulent receipts, and the receipts were doctored.”
However, he said unless new evidence is presented, there’s nothing the Peacekeepers can do. He suggested someone in the community may have the necessary evidence, and encouraged them to come forward, even if they are not a victim.
Despite the lack of a satisfying resolution in terms of accountability, the MCK insists that it has tightened up the department to ensure such a scandal cannot be repeated.
“Since 2018, the MCK has taken action towards corrective measures in areas that were identified as vulnerable to these types of fraudulent activities,” said Marquis. She explained that the housing department underwent an assessment to identify what these areas were, and also wiped out all debts on rental accounts as well as loans directly tied to the fraud.
The department has seen five new hires since the scandal began and has terminated an employee with “obvious responsibility tied to the fraudulent activities,” Marquis said.
A 2019 restructuring allowed for increased oversight of the unit with its own director and two general managers, and closer links with the MCK finance department were initialized earlier this year.
Cash will not be accepted by the MCK other than at the cashier desk in the main building and the concessions stand at the Kahnawake Sports Complex.
The criteria for housing will be stricter, and there will be balance statements and automatic withdrawals.
“In the past, housing in terms of its rental and mortgage programs was mirroring aspects of a bank, but we weren’t structured in a way to deliver at that level,” she explained. “But through new hires, the current housing study, and the restructuring, we are moving towards building the housing unit in a way that’s going to be able to implement timely services.”
The MCK still encourages any community members to come forward if their account balances do not accurately reflect their payment history.
“An additional expert consultant continues to work on reconciling certain complex accounts as we speak,” said Marquis. “We will not close this opportunity to the victims of this horrendous crime.”
“This is not the first time we’re addressing this issue when it comes to some kind of misappropriation of funds or employees taking advantage of the system,” said MCK grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer. “And it’s really unfortunate. We tend to have a lot of trust in our people and that this kind of thing is not going to happen.”
She described this as a two-way street. “We also know that there were community members that were also taking advantage of the situation and maybe making false claims that they were also victims,” she said.
“It’s a very, very tumultuous time in our history, but again, as Kanien’kehá:ka, we always find a way to forge forward and learn from our mistakes and learn from what has happened here today.”
She noted that the housing unit is a new team.
“We’re taking ownership of the role that the housing department and accounting played in this,” said Ryan Montour, MCK portfolio chief for housing. “I will take this opportunity now to apologize for the Office of the Council of Chiefs (OCC). We are truly sorry to each and every one of you.”
Montour said that he understands the lack of trust in the MCK that is likely to come with this announcement, but he believes the state of housing in Kahnawake will recover. “There is a bright future for housing moving forward. I can tell you, we have the right people in place,” he said. “We needed bankers and mortgage brokers 20 years ago to run an effective housing unit, and we do have that now.”
The MCK noted that the current Council – which was not the same Council that was in place when the housing scandal began – is committed to keeping the community informed about the state of Kahnawake’s housing crisis.
“We have been the most transparent Council in recent history,” MCK chief Montour said. “We are engaging more. We try not to hide anything going on at this time.”
“From the ashes of basically housing reaching a crash-and-burn-type situation, the only way we can go from here is up,” said Sky-Deer.
“We have to change the way we do business.”
Former social housing administrator Leah Horn declined to comment for this article.