SASKATOON -- In the summer of 2019, a group of Indigenous artists were excited to showcase their work in Tokyo, Japan, as part of a trade mission billed as a way to promote Indigenous art abroad.

Instead, the trip left several of the artists out thousands of dollars and Heather Abbey — the entrepreneur behind the trip — owing around $40,000 to Creative Saskatchewan, the provincial agency which helped fund the trade mission.

That's why one of the artists who says she is still owed money for the failed trip says she was taken aback when she learned Abbey had won US$21,500 on Wheel of Fortune recently.

“I was speechless,” said Robin Cote, who was supposed to go on the trip to Tokyo. 

“I thought that was a very bold move considering that she owes so many people money. And I felt like it was just a slap in the face, you know, honestly, and I was like ‘Okay well I mean good for her, but like, can you pay us back now?’”

Cote, who is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan but now lives in Los Angeles, says she feels like her time and energy, and that of the group of Indigenous artists, was wasted as a result of the failed trip.

“This was supposed to be major,” she said. “First time ever, we're like an all-Indigenous delegation, going to go to Japan, and we're going to represent our people.”

“I just feel like the damages that she's done, is that it was in our own community is irreparable. She at least owes people an apology, she owes our community an apology.”

Creative Saskatchewan has been working with Abbey to repay the grant money it provided for the trip. 

“Creative Saskatchewan is, and has been in regular contact with Ms. Abbey,” said director of communications Craig Lederhouse.

“We’ve got an agreement in place that she repay the full amount owed to this agency over time. To date, Ms. Abbey has been honouring that agreement, she’s been making monthly payments, and we revisit that agreement, reassess it and renew it every six months.”

Cote says she paid Abbey $1,000 for hotel accommodations, and as many as 30 people paid fees toward the trip, but there’s no plan for them to get their money back.

“Most of us have been either ghosted or she's not returning our emails,” she said. 

“I did send her a few emails asking her about when I'm going to be able to receive money back. I've been blocked on all social media, she's blocked me on all her social media platforms, and she hasn't returned any of my emails.”

CTV News reached Abbey by phone in California where she now lives.

She said when the prize money is released to her in early 2021, she's going to use it to pay her debts related the trip.

"The big thing about this Wheel money win, is that I can put a big chunk toward that as well and I've already communicated that (to Creative Sask.)," Abbey said.

"When (the money is released) I'm going to be like 'e-Transfer, e-Transfer' and I'm going to feel like I'm free," she said.

"I am determined to pay the (artists), I am determined to pay Creative Sask."

Abbey said that she had good intentions when she organized the Tokyo trip and regrets how it turned out.

"This end result was never my plan, I didn't say I'm going to go and create this completely messed up trip that's going to jeopardize my entire business and end it, and hurt a lot of people."