03/14/2015 04:12 EDT | Updated 05/14/2015 05:59 EDT

Shuswap Band focuses on debt repayments months after election

The Shuswap First Nation near Invermere, B.C., remains divided, four months after ousting a chief who had made more than $200,000 a year while running an 87-member reserve where some lived without running water or electricity, says current chief Barb Cote.

Cote says she has been working hard to rebuild confidence ever since she was voted in last November. She hopes a public meeting on Saturday — the first one involving all band members since the new council took office — will allow those who are uncertain about the band's future to understand the direction she wants to take.

"We're going through lots of ups and downs for sure because we, unfortunately, had to deal with so many past issues," Cote said.

Members had been questioning the band's spending for more than a decade, until it was revealed last fall that former chief Paul Sam and his wife each earned more than $200,000 annually. Much of the band's spending was unexplained, with financial statements showing expenditures under the category of "other" totalling nearly $2.5 million over two years. 

Cote says she has spent the past few months going through the band's financial records and paying back debts. She says "some money's coming in," but the band owes a law firm $450,000. It also owes money to the Regional District of the East Kootenay and to an insurance company.

Cote says the 267-person band "should be rich" — the Shuswap own prime industrial land upon which sits hotels, breweries and a golf course — but it will remain in the red for at least another year.

Still, there are plans to build 10 new homes on the reserve and get new furnaces for about 18 homes.

"We'll be in the red for a little while, I think, but it's not doom and gloom," said Cote.