A Reserve Torn Apart

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

In person, Arthur and Donna Gabriel are a quiet, unassuming couple. After years of hard work and sweat, by dint of only their own funds and effort, they built a business, a cattle ranch, valued at half-a-million dollars. They sought financial independence, but what they got was a never-ending legal nightmare. They lost it all because, unlike most citizens, the Gabriels had the misfortune to reside on an Indian reservation, at the Waterhen in central Manitoba.

Unfortunately, what happened to the Gabriels and their ranch is not unique. It is a template for the fate of thousands of aboriginal Canadians across the country. Why do residents of First Nations seldom improve their homes or start businesses? They have little or no security of possession for the value they create.

The political machinations that form the backdrop for the Gabriels’ catastrophic loss are long, messy and confusing. The trouble started in December, 1992, when some residents of the Waterhen reserve, the Gabriels among them, demanded more financial accountability from their leaders, who had cloaked their dealings in a blanket of secrecy. The following year, the dissidents elected a majority of councillors to the band’s government who promised to address these issues. Arthur Gabriel, who had never before served on the band council, was one of them.

That precipitated a long tug of war between the chief and reformers on the band council. Most of the information for this report came from the dissident faction, who vehemently defend their actions over the following four years. The lesson that emerges from the eventual debacle does not depend on who was right or wrong. The problem is a system of aboriginal governance that cannot resolve such disputes peacefully.

Our First Nations are caught in a classic Catch-22. The devolution of authority from the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (DIAND) has proceeded in an atmosphere of neutrality. DIAND bureaucrats, busy with shedding paternalism, have religiously refused to take sides, and in the process have encouraged a moral chaos without parallel in non-aboriginal Canada. At the Waterhen, this official neutrality had devastating consequences.

Between 1992 and 1996, the struggle between the chief’s faction and the majority quorum of reformers on Waterhen band council took many forms. Court orders and injunctions flew back and forth, the band office was occupied and barricaded, a third-party manager was appointed, a financial audit was ordered but never conducted, another election riddled with threats and intimidation failed to resolve anything. At the end of this messy road, the chief and his faction were back in control, but they didn’t have the band’s books.

The chief adopted new tactics. Early in April, 1996, with the assistance of the RCMP, he removed his supporters from the reserve, leaving the rest of the band members to fend for themselves. At band expense, the chief’s group stayed in paid lodging in and around Dauphin. The crisis reached a point of no return on April 24 when the chief obtained an interlocutory court injunction order against the dissidents.

The RCMP then barricaded entrances to the Waterhen First Nation, which is almost surrounded by water. Police in airboats patrolled the reserve, at times setting off explosives and firing tear gas. The RCMP and the members of the force’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) entered the reserve at night, and were observed flat on the ground crawling about. Helicopters roamed overhead with bright spotlights illuminating the reserve sky. Street lights were smashed and dogs on the reserve poisoned. The reserve was under siege.

Over the weeks before the chief’s faction decamped and the barricades went up, violence against the dissidents had been growing, with the chief’s supporters brandishing guns and threatening to declare war. Verbal and physical assaults occurred and tires were slashed. The Gabriels and their associates insist that they did not respond in kind. Even after the barricades went up, they limited their protests to picketing with posters calling for justice and protesting band corruption. “We remained resigned and kept a peaceful presence,” says Donna Gabriel.

But what appeared to be a well-organized series of events made quorum supporters look like criminals. The acts ranged from petty vandalism to serious acts like arson. Two houses, including the one assigned to the chief, burned to the ground. The dissidents warned each other not to go near the burning homes, for fear they could be blamed.

Subsequent events are forever seared in everyone’s memories. In the early morning hours of May 19, the RCMP and the ERT, armed with machine guns, stun grenades and vicious attack dogs, stormed the reserve and terrorized the residents. They invoked the chief’s interlocutory order and removed everyone, including women, children, elders and youth, from the reserve at gunpoint.

Heavily armed men kicked open doors of sleeping residents and ordered women, children and adults to drop to the floor with automatic weapons pointed at their heads. The attack dogs were allowed to bite many of them. They were handcuffed, with some loaded into waiting police vehicles and others into buses. The children were apprehended by a native child-care agency chaired by the chief. Their parents were taken to jail.

Two days later, the RCMP allowed the chief and his supporters to return to the Waterhen. An orgy of destruction ensued. Two more houses were torched, this time ones belonging to quorum supporters, and many others looted and ransacked. Vehicles belonging to dissidents were pushed into water-filled ditches. In spite of a continuous, 24-hour police presence on the Waterhen that lasted for 30 days after the chief’s faction was restored, the RCMP made no arrests.

Of the people dragged from the Waterhen reserve, 35 people were charged and many convicted of mischief, intimidation and various related charges. They appealed the convictions, some all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada. None of the convictions stuck. Most of them, however, were never allowed to return to the reserve.

The Gabriels’ ranch operation and another belonging to Gilbert Catcheway were dissolved and the assets turned over to an organization called the Tribal Wi-Chi-Way-Win Farm Credit Corporation, one of whose directors was the chief. The erstwhile entrepreneurs asked the RCMP to intervene in this confiscation, but they were advised that it was a civil, not a criminal matter.

In an effort to recover their assets, they have been in and out of the courts for eight long years, with no end yet in sight. As with so many native Canadians who have had their possessions seized, they are locked into a series of revolving courtroom doors. Just to pay their legal bills, the Gabriels must continually raise funds among those aboriginals sympathetic to their plight.

The courts are reluctant to administer common-sense remedies because a long history of judgments says the band chief’s powers are not limited by Canadian common law. Although their case seems hopeless, for the Gabriels the courts are their only alternative. But even if they eventually receive justice, their dreams of financial independence are gone. And how do you replace the pride in the ranch you built, the loss of your home and all your possessions?

Canada’s First Nations hold many budding entrepreneurs. But who would be foolish enough to invest their savings and sweat equity in a venture when, at the whim of band politics, you could lose everything? For Indian reserves fraught with poverty and welfare dependence, the plight of the Gabriels serves as an object lesson. Hard work may or may not be rewarded. So why bother? Not to colour all First Nations with the same brush; many leaders do very well for their people. Sadly, under the current system, they are in a minority.

The former chief now works for the West Regional Tribal Council based in Dauphin. The Waterhen’s people are forever divided, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided had he opened the band’s books to reserve members, or had DIAND exercised its authority to clean up the band’s finances when the majority quorum on its council repeatedly requested help.

Arthur and Donna Gabriel are decent, hardworking people stunned by the massive injustice meted out to them. They are grateful to their many friends who are still hanging in with them. But just imagine if you backed the wrong political faction in your neighbourhood and then had your home and possessions and your livelihood seized. In Canada, this should not be allowed to happen.

This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press July 7, 2005. Arthur and Donna Gabriel, who now live in Portage la Prairie, are still trying to receive compensation for their losses.