Yukon RCMP has been investigating the finances of the defunct Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services since February, undertaking a forensic audit as it delves into the former mental health NGO’s affairs.
The police’s involvement in the matter, however, only became public knowledge on Oct. 13, when Premier Sandy Silver apparently inadvertently acknowledged in the legislative assembly that a criminal investigation was underway.
It was information the leaders of the opposition parties, as well as the president of the Yukon Employees Union (YEU), said came as a surprise.
Many Rivers, for years, held a government contract to administer free counselling services throughout the territory but, saddled with more than $500,000 in debt, shut down last August following more than year of turmoil.
A roughly $500,000 transfer payment Many Rivers received in October 2018, shortly before it stopped providing services due to a nearly three-month long strike followed by a mass layoff shortly after staff returned to work, remains unaccounted for.
The organization was also plagued with complaints and allegations of financial mismanagement.
The Yukon government had ordered a financial audit, which Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost told media in October 2019 “did not reveal whether or not criminal behaviour occurred” but “did alert Health and Social Services to practices and procedures within the organization that were of significant concern.”
She had rebuffed calls for a forensic audit, saying that the RCMP had said it required more information to launch a criminal investigation.
However, while responding to questions about mental health services in the legislative assembly Oct. 13, Silver stated that Many Rivers was “under forensic audit” and “under police investigation.”
Yukon government deputy chief of staff Sunny Patch confirmed in an email Oct. 15 that the RCMP had “initiated” an investigation into Many Rivers’ affairs.
“We are fully cooperating with the RCMP and will defer to them for further comment on the matter,” she wrote.
Yukon RCMP spokesperson Sandy Watson, separately, also confirmed Oct. 15 that police had started a “criminal investigation into this matter” in February.
“Previously the Yukon Government had completed a ‘financial review’ that did not definitively determine a criminal element,” he said in an email.
“Since then, the RCMP have commenced a forensic audit. This audit is comprehensive in nature (and is) meant to determine whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing.”
Patch did not directly respond to a question about when the government learned the Yukon RCMP was actively investigating Many Rivers.
Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee dodged questions in the legislative assembly Oct. 15 from Yukon Party health critic Patti McLeod about when the forensic audit began, claiming that discussing the matter “in any way… could improperly infringe on the investigation that is ongoing.”
Frost, responding to another question from McLeod about whether any government records were part of the audit, spoke about the “great work of mental wellness supports across the Yukon” instead.
Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon and Yukon NDP leader Kate White both told the News Oct. 15 that they had no idea police were investigating Many Rivers until Silver mentioned it in the house.
“We were surprised as everyone else to hear the premier bring that forward on Tuesday,” Dixon said.
He questioned why Silver brought up the investigation “unprompted” on Oct. 13, but two days later, the government was saying it couldn’t speak about the issue.
“Obviously, either the premier was careless with his comments or he was providing information he was then advised he shouldn’t be providing,” Dixon said. “… We think that the public deserves to know what’s changed between October of last year and October of this year.”
White, who had put forward a motion last November compelling the Yukon government to undertake a forensic audit, said she was “relieved” to learn that an investigation was underway.
She described the government’s entire dealing with Many Rivers as “disappointing” but said she felt that the fact that a forensic audit was finally underway was “validation for the folks who worked really hard to keep that organization going.”
“I guess what I’m looking toward to is you know, the vindication of those who tried to keep it going, who said that they had concerns, that things didn’t make sense … And I guess we just have to wait and see what happens.”
YEU president Steve Geick, meanwhile, said while he was happy a forensic audit was happening, he thought the amount of time it took to get to this point was “totally unacceptable.”
Geick said that during the strike, he had personally brought documents to the Yukon government showing “a pretty big discrepancy” in Many Rivers’ finances and that the union, which represented 18 Many Rivers staff, had repeatedly asked for an investigation.
“I’m really curious as to why it took this long when they were well aware that things didn’t look right with the finances to start with,” he said.
“… That to me is another, ‘What’s going on?’ kind of question. Why is it happening now?”
Contact Jackie Hong at email@example.com