Wasaya Airways board members claim they were fired for investigating financial mismanagement

By Kenneth Jackson and Cullen Crozier
APTN Investigates
Two former Wasaya Airways board members tell APTN Investigates they were abruptly fired last August because their board had been trying to determine why the northern Ontario airline was losing money.

The board members say they had been asking questions for months about “financial mismanagement,” but it appears they went a step too far when they asked Anishinabek police to investigate a Wasaya Airways vice-president for fraud.

A day after an official complaint was made to police, the board was fired.

“I think that’s why the whole board was relieved, because that’s what we were trying to address. There was some financial mismanagement and we were trying to address these things,” said Lefty Kamenewatamin who represented Bearskin First Nation on the board. “We had to address some people you know, the staff you know,  I’m not identifying any particular person at the moment but there was definitely mismanagement of funds for sure.”

Internal Wasaya documents provided to APTN show the board was briefed last March that Jonathan Mamakwa, current vice-president of customer relations, had allegedly charged approximately $160,000 in personal charges on his Wasaya credit card.

For months the matter went unaddressed, APTN learned.

Wasaya Airways is owned by 12 First Nations and the majority of chiefs voted to remove the board after the complaint was made to police.

Then on Aug. 28 Wasaya called off the police investigation saying it would be handled internally.

But the former board wasn’t just looking at management. It was examining the chiefs’ financial activities as well.

APTN has reported that as of December 16, some ownership chiefs had charged more than $2.6 million in credit to Wasaya and were asked to pay up or Wasaya could go under.

Former board member John McKay, who represented Keewaywin First Nation, said the board was also trying to determine why some chiefs had allegedly charged so much money to Wasaya because the $2.6 million was $1 million over their collective credit limit.

“I think that’s what kind of triggered us to get off because we were putting our nose where we were not supposed to put our nose in,” said McKay.

For Kamenewatamin it’s hard for him to see Wasaya in financial trouble because he was there in the airline`s beginning in the early 1990s.

“I was sort of involved when we had meetings trying to start up this airline and the way it’s going now I’m kind of disappointed with where it’s going right now,” he said. “People on a community level are paying financially to offset what’s been mismanaged. It’s the people on the grassroots level … that are really paying the debt.”

Kamenewatamin said he’s heard of communities wanting to pull out of Wasaya.

“That’s pretty hard to swallow,” he said. “Once the people start realizing what’s really happening I think they’re going to withdraw their support from the airline.”

McKay said a lot of money has been invested in Wasaya and the ownership communities are still looking for a return on their investment.

“We never received a penny ever since when we started,” he said of Keewaywin First Nation. “That’s another thing, as a board member, I did ask. So many times I asked when are we going to get our share of it … I was told ‘just wait, it’s coming’  and then we’ve still been waiting, but nothing’s comes in yet.”

McKay said he’s just hopeful Wasaya can turn things around and “pull through all that and straighten things out and keep going.”

Repeated opportunities were given to Wasaya Airways President Tom Morris to comment, but he has refused.

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