Syilx and sqilx’w community members gathered at the courthouse in ‘Kelowna’ last June, holding signs that denounced Robert Riley Saunders and called for the protection of Indigenous youth. Photo by Aaron Hemens
A man who forged social worker credentials and defrauded youth under his “care” — many of whom were Indigenous — has been granted day parole for a period of six months.
Robert Riley Saunders, who was handed a five-year prison sentence last July, was given the conditional release but denied full parole, according to an Oct. 10 decision from the Parole Board of Canada.
The decision has outraged Indigenous leaders and victims who were defrauded by Saunders, and the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) is calling for an immediate reversal of the decision.
“The Parole Board acknowledged that the youth suffered as a result of the thefts, but that didn’t seem to factor significantly in its decision,” the FNLC said in a statement on Oct. 13.
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs vice-president chief Don Tom said Saunder was only able to defraud Indigenous youth for six and a half years because of the failures of the province’s child “welfare” system.
“With this decision to grant Mr. Saunders parole, the justice system has once again failed First Nations victims,” he said in a statement.
“First Nations people have been victimized by the justice system for 200 years. It is clearly time for fulsome reform.”
First Nations Summit political executive Hugh Braker also said in the statement that “many decisions of the National Parole Board are seen as ‘Get out of Jail Free’ cards while youth victims continue to suffer, many for the rest of their lives.”
“There needs to be a rethink and reimaging of the Canadian justice system, so there is more alignment between the principles of sentencing and the principles guiding parole,” he added.
“These types of decisions by the Parole Board single-handedly bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”
Aden Withers, a victim of Saunders, spoke to APTN National News about her own experience, noting that she was given just $30 a week in cash to get by and that surviving was a struggle.
“The reality is that he ruined so many lives,” Withers said the article published Oct. 20.
“There were kids who never got to see his day in court because they didn’t survive the homelessness and addictions. He directly fed into that by re-traumatizing traumatized youth.”
The conditions for day parole include no contact with the victims, providing documented financial information to the satisfaction of his parole supervisor, and no responsibility — paid or unpaid — for the management of finances or investments for any other individuals, charity, business or institution.
“After reviewing and weighing the relevant factors in your case, the board puts weight on your limited criminal history, your good behaviour when on bail, your positive engagement in voluntary interventions, and your viable release plan,” the board wrote in its decision.
“It is the board’s opinion that you will not present an undue risk to society if released on day parole to other location and that your release will contribute to the protection of society by facilitating your reintegration into society as a law-abiding citizen.”
The decision notes that Saunders has been accepted to a community residential facility (CRF) in “Alberta,” plans to attend individual counselling and has an offer of employment from an undisclosed employer.
It also notes the board denied Saunders’s application for full parole because he continues “to require a level of oversight” given his ability to keep his offences secret for a long time and because his “release plans continue to include financial uncertainty, which has the potential to be destabilizing.”
On July 25, 2022, Saunders had been sentenced to five years in prison for of fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and forgery.
The court heard that he had been first hired by the “B.C.” Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) in 1996 in “Fort St. John,” using a forged bachelor of social work degree from the University of Manitoba, and that his then-girlfriend assisted in forging the document.
Five years later, Saunders transferred to “Kelowna” in syilx homelands. While working as a social worker with MCFD’s Indigenous Integrated Family Service and Guardianship, Saunders opened 24 joint bank accounts with youth, whose wellbeing he was supposed to look out for.
For six and a half years, starting in June 2011, he issued more than 850 ministry cheques to the youth, which he deposited in each youth’s account. The cheques totalled more than $460,000. Since the funds were in a joint account, Saunders was then able to transfer the money to his own personal bank account. Most of the cheques, which ranged from support payments to startup funds for youth aging out of care, were in amounts of $579.
The judge who heard Saunders’ case convicted him of misappropriating more than $460,000 and a breach of trust and using a forged degree to get a job as a social worker with the Ministry of Child and Family Development in “B.C.” at the time.
With files from Aaron Hemens.
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve.
The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples.
The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.
The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door.
The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish).
On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.
Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.
The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse.
After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place.
General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.
The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.
Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.
“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.”
Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.
A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.
Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.
Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS.
“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.
Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.
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