Hefty Personal Price Writing about Aboriginal Politics

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

The trials and tribulations of writing about aboriginal issues are considerable. My own story illustrates the problem, and perhaps explains why so few others come forward to report band corruption and the abuse of human rights. Such actions can carry a heavy personal price, and the people on whom you blow the whistle are usually immune from any sort of prosecution.

The road has not been easy. The malefactors pursue you and make you pay dearly for exposing their wrongdoing, to set an example for others so inclined. Thankfully, the stories are not all negative. I am always on the lookout for aboriginal leaders and others that put the betterment of their people and the aboriginal community at large before themselves. They deserve a lot of credit and more ink than they get. But writing about problems can generate a quite vicious response.

I started out writing on the west coast of British Coloumbia, more as a hobby than a serious pursuit. My aboriginal background opened the door to many new friendships, all the more so because natives are for the most part good-natured people, quick to bring into their homes a stranger, even a Cree from Northern Manitoba. While observing the hardships and frustrations of B.C.’s Shuswap Indians, I noticed many problems similar to those that much too often plague First Nations communities across Canada.

Among the parallels are elected leaders with little formal education, an imposed and oppressive Indian Act and large transfer payments that require little accountability. This combination leaves the door open to widespread abuse. In B.C., as in Manitoba, most non-aboriginals know little of internal band politics. Like others across Canada, B.C. natives were writing letters to the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) and asking the department to intervene on their behalf. As I read many of the responses from INAC, an all too familiar pattern emerged. It was all to clear that INAC would not be interfering in band politics. Reams of documents showing wrongdoing or outright corruption appeared to go largely ignored by federal bureaucrats. Even more alarming, officials within the department appeared to be protecting guilty leaders.

Little has changed. As I did then, I write about the plight of average First Nations’ people, to help educate the public and convince INAC to uphold its fiduciary responsibility to them. To end the suffering and poverty requires that aboriginal leaders be held accountable. It is long, endless task. Mainstream politicans with the backbone to stand up to aboriginal elites are in very short supply.

One Chief I wrote about took exception and sued a band member and myself. We that we were right and had the documents to substantiate my stories. For this particular Chief, that meant little and in his eyes the lawsuit positioned him as the victim. $40,000 and two long years later, just prior to the trial, he dropped the case. He achieved what he wanted, to make our lives as miserable as possible. Band funds paid his bills.

Prior to suing us, he had just come off a case where he sued six elders from his community for bringing forward damaging information. In this case, the Chief allowed the matter to continue to trial. A very upset judge warned the Chief about bringing such frivolous cases to his court and dismissed the case. The defending elders received a loud and clear message. Although vindicated in court, the three years leading up to trial was very hard on them. The windows in their vehicles were smashed and they were rear-ended on the highway near the reserve at night. No one was ever charged in these incidents.

I then owned a tourist business, with trail rides and horseback camping excursions. An inspector from the humane society came to me twice with complaints that my horses were in poor health and abused. After the second visit, he said he would not be responding to further complaints. It was obvious, he said, that someone is trying to make life extremely hard for you. Your animals are in very good condition and appear well-fed; I see no reason to keep coming back here. I will telephone you instead. Having a good idea about the source of the complaints, I mentioned a name. He said nothing, but nodded yes.

This was only the beginning. Next the Chief, his brothers and cousins tapped their supporters and compiled a list to remove me from the reserve. A band council resolution (BCR) soon followed. I was given 24 hours to vacate the reserve. My wife’s two cats were left to fend for themselves. Some of my horses found temporary homes, the others had to be sold at a loss. Then my loan from a First Nations lending organization was called in. All the directors on its board were Chiefs and band councillors, including one from the reserve that BCR’d me.

As a small consolation, an RCMP Staff Sargent drove out from Kamloops to offer advice. All his suggestions involved lawyers and spending a lot of money on temporary solutions. Because I would be going up against band funds and all the lawyers they could hire, my chances of victory were slim. Many band members from outlying reserves offered their support. A female band member who had challenged this same Chief said he had tracked her subsequent efforts to find other work and his reach made employment opportunities very difficult.

I returned to Manitoba and my own First Nation, where I was hired as an economic development officer. Soon I was offered a position as CEO of their corporation. Stay out of politics and concentrate on your position I constantly reminded myself. The people had other ideas. With a band election looming, people were coming to my office daily to ask me to run for Chief. Although I was not interested, the Chief soon got wind of it. I was dressed down before him and simply told, “When you work here, you support me fully. You do not go against me.” A few days later, I was informed that I had been removed from the band list by the Chief and one councillor.

On nomination day, I was named as a candidate for councillor. The chief electoral officer refused to accept the nomination as I was no longer a band member. Supporters asked, “How can they do this to you? It is not legal.” My response was simple: “This is an Indian reserve. You tell me where I can go for help.” Three days after the election, my position with the band was terminated. I was blacklisted from any of the band’s programs and employment opportunities.

My land was taken away and given to a supporter of the Chief. I was forced to live in a house that had been previously been condemned. What made it even harder was the fact that this house sat right across the bay from the Chief’s large home, his third new one in as many years. I was not alone, many others received much worse treatment at the hands of this same dictator. Like others, I became a political refugee and was forced to flee the reserve in order to find employment to support my family.

The choices are not pleasant. You can walk away and let the abuse of power go on, or stand up and try to make a difference. I chose the noble path, and will continue to promote a better way for my people to the best of my ability. But unlike others who are oppressed, I also have skills I can market in the wider economy outside reserves. But if people are wonder why so few aboriginal people come forward to report corruption and abuses, they should listen to my story.

Would you?