A Reserve in Turmoil

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

As part of a project surveying aboriginal governance issues I am visiting all Manitoba and Saskatchewan reserves. While recently flying into the remote northern St. Theresa Point First Nation, I got the uneasy feeling something was not quite right; the tension in the air was so thick one could almost cut it with a knife.

The people were on edge and for good reason. Chief David McDougall had called a news conference in Winnipeg to inform the public and Indian Affairs that the band had no funds to continue paying the band constables. That evening, a young male was viciously assaulted by gang members in the community and was airlifted to a Winnipeg hospital.

A large contingent of RCMP officers was brought in from other detachments to investigate the assault and to create some semblance of law and order. The officers definitely made an impact. On my way to the hotel, the traffic was backed up in both directions, because the RCMP had pulled over a vehicle carrying alleged gang members. People had gotten out of their vehicles to watch as the police had several young men on the ground and had handcuffed them for transport to the local lock-up. One man even flashed a gang sign to the crowd.

Mr. McDougall wants the fed to send more money to pay the constables, but is this the right approach? The constables, who left a lot to be desired in terms of a well-trained or disciplined police force, escorted me during my brief visit.

The constables are local residents. In an isolated community such as this one where the gang population is large, would these constables be willing to ruffle feathers and to risk repercussions from the gangs, who can resort to extreme retaliation, such as torching houses? Could this be the reason the gang problem is out of control?

One community member said this: “The chief is always traveling and away from our community most of the time. We feel abandoned by our leaders, who never tell where they go and why they go. We lack good leadership. All this traveling and the result is our community only gets worse.”

I asked a father of several children who the local gang members are. He said, “We don’t know. Nobody seems to know which kids are involved with gangs here.” For such a small community, this was hard to believe. Was this self-denial or do parents not want to know whose children are involved in gang activity?

Arriving at the council chambers, I was greeted by the Chief and a few band council members. He stated, “You did not follow proper protocol in entering our reserve. You must inform us beforehand, stating your business. I have read some of your articles in the past, I don’t agree with most of them.” Unfortunately this put me in a tough spot. “Protocol” is a convenient device to keep out people unless they are local rule players.

He discussed my visit with the council for an hour before ordering me off the reserve. The week prior, the council kicked out a member of the clergy. It was painfully obvious Mr. McDougall was Mayor, Police Chief, Judge, and Jury of this little hamlet.

While loading my luggage into the water taxi, I overheard the band constables telling the boat operator not to tell me anything that is going on in the community.

Of course, none of this should be surprising. Like many isolated reserves, there is no viable economy, only welfare and band jobs that are tightly controlled by the chief and dominated by family politics. Because of the lack of employment, many people desperately want to leave, even for a short period, but a shortage of money prevents this. So, when two forest fires broke out nearby, someone said, “As usual, the fire is heading towards St. Theresa Point.” I asked what this meant. “We believe someone started the fires in hopes of being evacuated.”

Any funds invested in this community must go toward establishing an RCMP station. What is seen as band constables leaves a lot to be desired, and any training will take a very long time, and time is something this community does not have. This sad story is a microcosm of Canada’s severely dysfunctional aboriginal policy, which revolves around subsidizing people to languish on isolated reserves where there is no economy. Still, some blame must be placed on the band council for letting its community deteriorate to such a point that young people have nothing to do and join gangs.

The 10 p.m. curfew reminder for all St. Theresa Point residents was broadcast on local television. No wonder there was tension! Only this is not some far away, wartorn place such as the Gaza strip. This is happening in Canada, and keeping it a secret will certainly cause it to grow and fester.