A Reserve Torn Apart (Unabridged Version)

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.

In December, 1992, 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.

Harvey Nepinak was re-elected as Chief, but he refused to work with the new quorum. It took a year and a half, but the council majority finally got what it wanted. On March 23, 1994, the Regional Director of federal Department of Indian and Northern Development Canada (DIAND) convened a meeting of the Chief and council, where a band council resolution calling for an independent audit of the Waterhen band passed. The department then appointed a third-party manager for the band.

That should have ended the issue. But DIAND refused to provide the quorum with details of the band’s funding agreements and the Chief’s supporters then broke into and occupied the band office. The RCMP were called to assist, but did nothing. They stated: “As to who has the authority of the band has to be determined by DIAND.”

In April, 1994, at its own expense, the council quorum obtained a court order against the Chief and his supporters and removed the band’s records. A month later, the group obtained another order appointing them the legitimate representatives of the band. Served with these documents, DIAND’s lawyer repeated that the department took no position in the band’s internal matters, the same response it had made for years to the many letters and petitions from band members demanding accountability.

This official neutrality had devastating consequences.

On or about May 17, 1994, frustrated by official disregard for court orders, the quorum attempted to enter the band office and was forced away by the Chief’s supporters, who set up barricades. The councillors returned to court and obtained an order to have the barricades removed. They came down, but the third-party manager cut off all payments for the dissidents, including their honorariums. He refused to work with or even meet with the quorum unless the Chief was present and refused to assist them in preparing the mandated audit.

Finally, in November, 1995, DIAND Minister approved a new band election. The quorum and their supporters were told “that it is going to be payback time” and were harassed and threatened at the polls. Nepinak and his supporters were voted back into power. By February, 1996, all control of funding had been returned to the Chief.

But the genie was out of the bottle. During their brief period of control, the quorum had distributed the band’s books among their supporters, whom they tersely dubbed “the people.” In February, 1996, Chief Nepinak obtained a court injunction ordering the council quorum and unnamed “supporters” to return the books. Nepinak said he could not do band business without them.

Frustrated by his opponents’ refusal to staunch the flow of information, the Chief adopted new tactics. Early in April, 1996, with the assistance of the RCMP, the Chief 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, Manitoba. The crisis reached a point of no return on April 24 when the Chief obtained an interlocutory court injunction order against the dissidents, and against unnamed members of a notorious aboriginal gang, the Manitoba Warriors, whose role in the affair remains murky to this day.

The RCMP barricaded entrances to the Waterhen First Nation, which is mostly surrounded by water. Police in airboats patrolled the reserve, at times setting off explosives and firing teargas. 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 Nepinak 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.

Who did it? Today the Gabriels and their friends wonder if these acts were not in fact the work of the Manitoba Warriors. They had observed known members of the gang entering and exiting the barricades with impunity at all hours of the day and night, apparently with the knowledge and consent of the authorities. Chief Nepinak held court for the media outside the barricades and attributed the criminal acts to his opponents.

Subsequent events are forever seared in the memories of the dissidents. 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 Chief Nepinak’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. Witnesses say the police had no pity, even though the people showed no resistance. 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 none other than Chief Nepinak. Their parents were taken to jail.

Two days later, the RCMP allowed Chief Nepinak 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, thirty-five people were charged and many convicted of mischief, intimidation and various related charges. They couldn’t afford lawyers and lacked any knowledge of court processes, but 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. That included the Gabriels, who supplied most of the information for this report, backed up by police notes and videotapes that by law have to be shared with court defendants.

The Gabriels’ ranch operation and another belonging to Gilbert Catcheway were totally dissolved and the assets turned over to an organization called the Tribal Wi-Chi-Way-Win Farm Credit Corporation, one of whose directors was, guess who, Chief Nepinak. 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 judgements says the 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 respectable leaders do very well for their people. Sadly, under the current system, they are in a minority.

Harvey Nepinak is no longer Chief, but is now employed by the West Regional Tribal Council based in Dauphin, Manitoba. The Waterhen’s people are forever divided, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided had Chief Nepinak been accountable and 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.