Where did all the money go?” That was the title of an open letter obtained by the Canadian Press written by worried members of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, whose lucrative Toronto-based casino has fallen on hard times. Band members are calling for a forensic audit to find out what has happened to tribal funds.
Over the past 15 years, Casino Rama has raked in about $5.5 billion in gross revenues and profits of $1.5 billion, with a sizable portion of net revenues going to the 1,500-member band (other First Nations across Ontario share in the profits). So it was something of a shock when in late February Chief Sharon Stinson Henry, speaking at a community forum, said the tribe was experiencing an economic downturn and that budget cutbacks would have to be made.
Among those cutbacks was that casino employees would forgo cost-of-living raises, see vacation time capped, and sick time slashed. Henry also proposed a buyout plan in which employees could resign in exchange for three weeks of pay per year of service. If the cost-cutting did not significantly reduce spending, then layoffs might be necessary.
The announcement was met with stunned silence from band members. Unwilling to express their deep concerns at the forum, several members later drafted the letter calling for an audit. The letter questions whether fraudulent activity has occurred. The letter stated, “Since the casino opened in 1996, it has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for our community. Yet now we have nothing to show for it.”
Some Chippewa members have concluded that the band administration has mismanaged the funds and others are blaming it on a poor economy. Bad business ventures, high salaries and perks and severance packages for council members were also areas of concern.
Henry denies that the band is in fiscal crisis, claiming that the new measures would allow the tribe to operate on a balanced budget. The six-term chief said she and six council members, who each make more than $100,000, would take a 10 percent pay cut as part of the austerity drive.