Crowds of protesters gathered outside the Kelowna Court house on June 23, for the sentencing of Robert Riley Saunders in Supreme court.
Members of Kelowna’s Indigneous community carried signs saying “Maximum sentence for Robert Riley Saunders,” and “Justice for Indigenous youth.”
While working as a fraudulent social worker, Saunders stole approximately $461,000 that was intended for the youth in his care, alleges Crown counsel.
Crown stated that each of his victims was a vulnerable Indigenous youth that had been taken from their parents, making them prime candidates for Saunders’ “opportunistic” scheme.
Crown emphasized that the fact that Saunders chose to target Indigenous youth is relevant given the history of systemic abuse.
“It cannot be forgotten.”
On May 20, a Kelowna Supreme Court judge ruled that the misappropriation of funds negatively impacted the youth in Saunders’ care, an aggravating factor of the case which Saunders denied while under cross-examination.
In court on June 23, Crown counsel gave closing arguments and presented victim impact statements from some of the youth that were under Saunders’ care and his former co-workers. A former colleague of Saunders that worked with youth in the aftermath of his dismissal from the ministry took the stand to read her victim impact statement of how the fraud has degraded her physical and mental health.
Following her statement, she received a cleansing smudge ceremony from the Indigenous supporters outside the courthouse.
“It is to help her heal and move forward,” said one supporter.
The statements outlined each victim’s perceived sentiment of deprivation and harm caused.
There is a publication ban in place to protect the identity of the victims.
“Even though Riley is no longer in my life, his actions will impact me for the rest of my life,” said one youth.
Many of the youth suffered significant trauma, homelessness and substance use because of the actions of Saunders, said Crown.
Multiple victims stated that due to the lies and deceit by Saunders, they do not trust authority figures and are apprehensive to seek help from the ministry or other state-run organizations.
“My trust in the systems that are supposed to support me is destroyed,” said a youth.
Saunders pled guilty to fraud over $5,000, forging a university diploma and breaching trust as a public official in Sept. 2021.
He has been indicted on 13 charges of fraud, theft and breach of trust.
Crown is requesting a sentence of six years in custody for the fraud. Suggestions for the other charges are yet to come.
The sentencing will continue on June 24.