An Indigenous entrepreneur facing allegations of financial mismanagement related to a trade mission to Japan has left behind a trail of unpaid bills and broken promises, both in Canada and abroad.
CBC News reported last week on the fallout from the July trade mission, with delegates saying they were embarrassed and disappointed by a poorly organized trip.
CBC has since learned that a hotel in Tokyo is trying to collect $15,000 in cancellation and no-show fees after trip organizer Heather Abbey confirmed the group’s reservation just hours before arrival, but then checked the Canadian delegation into an Airbnb instead.
Meanwhile, several business owners and artists have come forward to accuse Abbey of failing to honour other financial commitments, including a Saskatoon web designer who said Abbey “stiffed” him for $20,000 in pay in 2018.
$160K in taxpayers’ money
The Saskatchewan government has given Abbey and her company Indig Inc. more than $160,000 in taxpayers’ money over the past four years, through its arts funding agency called Creative Saskatchewan.
In an interview with CBC News, Abbey said she will repay nearly $60,000 she received for two recent projects: the trade delegation to Japan for Indigenous artists and a pop-up retail space in Saskatoon for handcrafted Indigenous goods that never happened.
She said her actions weren’t malicious or fraudulent, rather that some business gambles don’t always pan out.
“I feel that whether or not I always made things happen … I did things with the best intentions,” said Abbey.
Abbey is a charismatic Cree businesswoman with a knack for pitching ideas and self-promotion. She has won numerous awards for empowering Indigenous artists and received government grants for her much-lauded website Indig Inc. — an e-commerce platform that allows Indigenous artists to sell their homemade products. It is now offline.
In February 2019, Abbey pitched the idea of a trade mission to Tokyo that would showcase Indigenous art and culture. She qualified for $61,310 from Creative Saskatchewan’s market and export development fund to send “Saskatchewan-based entrepreneurs” to Japan. Abbey collected $36,786 of that before the July 21-28 trip.
However, only three of the 15 people who went to Tokyo actually live in Saskatchewan.
Thirty-two delegates were initially slated to go on the July trip, but Abbey contacted most of them a few days before their departure to try to postpone the trip until October. Abbey said most of the people on the second trip would have been from Saskatchewan, but she’s cancelling it.
Most of the participants who travelled to Japan said the trip was a debacle, with some telling CBC News of a laundry list of problems, including cancelled shuttles, no promised fashion show and a professional photo shoot from which artists say they haven’t received any photos.
The photography company, Tokyo Momento, said Abbey only paid for one image in full — and it was a photo of herself. It declined to say how much money it’s owed.
Delegates said Abbey switched them from Tokyo’s Hotel Nikko Narita to a cheap Airbnb with small plywood pods. One delegate dubbed it a “coffin hotel.”
The hotel said “the group failed to arrive at the hotel and no prior notice was given.” The hotel declined to say how much money it is owed, but email correspondence obtained by CBC News revealed the hotel is claiming Abbey owes roughly $15,000 in cancellation and no-show fees.
In an interview with CBC News concerning the latest allegations, Abbey said she accepted responsibility for some of the failures, but attributed most of the problems to her inexperience in planning an international trip.
Abbey said she won’t collect the remaining $24,524 of grant money and will repay 95 per cent of the first instalment. She also pledged to reimburse some participants for certain costs and to pay the photographer and hotel.
‘I’m done creating opportunities’
Eighteen months ago, before the Tokyo trip, Abbey was given a $25,430 grant from Creative Saskatchewan to set up a retail space in Saskatoon for Indigenous artists. She hasn’t done it yet, and her final report is past due.
She said she’s scrapping the idea and will repay the money, blaming backlash on social media, including a hashtag used a few dozen times on Twitter late last month.
“With #boycottIndigInc, I mean, who’s going to want to shop there?” Abbey said. “I’m done creating opportunities.”
Creative Saskatchewan said it cannot comment on Indig Inc. projects until it receives final reports.
Frank Collins, CEO of Saskatoon-based Danger Dynamite, said Abbey approached him in late 2017 to commission his web design and marketing company to build her Indig Inc. website and brand. He said Abbey told him she would have grant money from Creative Saskatchewan, but he didn’t know the details.
In fact, Abbey had been approved in August 2017 for roughly $61,000 to assist with website design, advertising, marketing and promotion.
Collins said Abbey paid his first invoice of $7,000 in late 2017. Then she asked for more sophisticated web features and graphic design, as well as a photo and video shoot. He sent her another bill for $5,300 in December 2018. She didn’t pay it.
Abbey assured him that she was in line for grant money, Collins said, but that she needed Danger Dynamite to deliver more materials so the public funding would come through. He estimates his company did another $15,000 to $20,000 worth of service in 2018 without receiving a penny from Abbey because he believed in her idea, her passion and her promises.
‘It blows my mind’
Eventually, Collins said, he ceased work until their expenses were covered. Collins said Abbey was “apologizing profusely” and promised him she was just waiting for Creative Saskatchewan to release the funds. Then, in January, she stopped responding to emails, phone calls and text messages. She moved her website over to another company.
That’s the same month that she submitted her final report to Creative Saskatchewan and received the final grant instalment, a total of $55,761.25.
Abbey said she can’t comment on that.
“It blows my mind,” Collins said. A huge loss like he experienced, he said, would be enough to put some small companies out of business.
Collins said he called Creative Saskatchewan on March 5 to alert them about issues related to Abbey’s business practices. “Creative Saskatchewan completely washed their hands of it,” he said.
Fear of backlash silences critics
Collins decided it wasn’t worth taking legal action against Indig Inc. or speaking out publicly at the time because he felt that “a white man crying foul against an Indigenous entrepreneur with the clout Heather has looked like a really bad PR choice.”
Three well-established Indigenous fashion designers say they were also burned by Abbey but were too afraid to criticize a much-celebrated Indigenous female entrepreneur.
As artists, we’re all just trying to survive, feed our kids, pay our bills.– Candace Bell, Indigenous designer
Tishna Marlowe, of Dene Couture, won a business competition hosted by Abbey in Saskatoon in November 2016. She said the prize was supposed to include a sewing machine, product promotion and a cash prize.
Marlowe said the cheque for $2,200 bounced and she never received a sewing machine.
Over the next year, Marlowe said she hounded Abbey for the prize money and only received it in small chunks after she threatened to go to the Better Business Bureau.
Marlowe said she suffered backlash from within the Indigenous art community when she quietly denounced Abbey and was accused of “native-on-native jealousy.”
Candace Bell, a well-known designer of beaded sunglasses based in Prince Albert, Sask., said she stayed silent to avoid a similar backlash.
A few years ago, Bell said, Abbey struck a deal with her to sell her sunglasses for a 50-50 share of the revenue. But Bell said Abbey stopped sending the designer her share.
“As artists, we’re all just trying to survive, feed our kids, pay our bills,” Bell said. “[Abbey] was very good at making you feel super sorry for her — a struggling businesswoman, a single mom, ‘If you don’t help me, you’re not supporting another Indigenous woman.'”
In 2016, Abbey recruited the designer to be one of the first artists to sell merchandise on her website, first known as ShopIndig.ca. Bell said the website would frequently go offline and she didn’t sell anything, yet Abbey would collect monthly subscription fees from her credit card.
Bell tried to quit the site, but said Abbey refused to cancel the charges, didn’t reply to emails or texts and then blocked her on social media. Bell said she had to contact her bank to stop the charges.
Beyond the money
Beyond the alleged financial mismanagement, several delegates on the Japan trip say they are more disturbed that Abbey capitalized on the hopes and dreams of Indigenous artists who went on the trade mission.
Yukon soapmaker Joella Hogan spent hours translating her soap names and business cards into Japanese so she could expand her market on the Tokyo trip.
“Yukon has a huge Japanese tourism market, especially in the winter with the aurora borealis. I knew there was a huge interest in Canada’s North, Indigenous people and natural handcrafted products,” Hogan said. “I thought this was going to change my business.”
But the trip only had one vendor opportunity at a shopping mall and didn’t forge business connections, she said.
Inuk 360 is an artisan based in the Northwest Territories who makes handcrafted jewelry with caribou and moose hair tufting. She said while she had problems getting paid by Abbey’s Indig Inc. website, she was excited to be part of Indig Inc.’s cultural showcase.
“To be trailblazers? Absolutely. I was completely sold on the idea,” Inuk said.
Inuk is offended that Abbey previously told CBC the artists agreed to be her “guinea pigs” for an international trade mission.
“I thought, ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me?’ I have worked so hard for 29 years, I’ll be damned if I’ll be anybody’s guinea pig.”