First Nation Boots Controversial MLA

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

In April, Oscar Lathlin, Manitoba’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, flew into Cross Lake, 200 kilometres south of Thompson, intending to present a $1-million cheque at the opening of the new Community Information Centre. Instead, he was forced back in to the plane, because of a protest organized by band members who were tired of the long-simmering disagreement over the 1977 Northern Flood Agreement. The cheque presentation was rescheduled, and it took place at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg.

In an interview with The Grassroots News, Lathlin stated, “Too many people are afraid to be ‘politically incorrect.’ But I was once a Chief, and I am thinking more ‘Indian’ right now than ‘cabinet minister,’ and I want to say that the people of Cross Lake are not going to make any progress while that Chief [John Miswagon] and Council are in place. I do not recognize the Pimicikamak Cree Nation or PCN.” (Oscar Lathlin was chief of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in the 1980s before becoming an NDP MLA.)

Chief Miswagon’s response came through The Grassroots News, where he said: “It is really none of the … Minister’s business who is Chief of Cross Lake.” (First Nations and their chiefs and councils were established by, and operate under, the federal government’s Indian Act. The chief and council of the Cross Lake band act as ex-officio chief and council of the PCN. In the interview with The Grassroots News, Miswagon continued, “The United Nations guarantees the right of indigenous people to set up their own democratic governments under international law so I would recommend that this so called Honorable person [Lathlin] check if he is really an Indian.”

Quite clearly, there are problems relating to government legitimacy occurring out on these communities.

Prior to becoming the chief of Cross Lake 10 years ago, John Miswagon worked as a bank manager and conservation officer for the province of Manitoba. When he was elected on Oct. 1, 1997, he and his council inherited a $19-million deficit; as of April 11, 2008, the debt was down to $1.6-million.

Lathlin, however, was not the first to be booted out of the community. During the 1999 provincial election, then PC candidate and chief of Norway House band, Ron Evans, was also given the boot by the band council for breaching their authority when he entered the reserve without permission and appeared live on the radio station as part of his election campaign. Evans, accompanied by Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch, was sent packing.

The tension between the government and the Cross Lake Indians stems from the lack of progress in implementing the 1977 Northern Flood Agreement. Of the five northern First Nations whose lands were affected by the development of Manitoba Hydro’s power generating stations, Cross Lake is the last holdout for the terms of this agreement.

In 1999, a national coalition of Canadian churches conducted an inquiry into the effects of hydro development in the North on these five First Nations communities. Cross Lake First Nation’s legal counsel, Colin Gillespie, provided a history of the hydro development project and the Northern Flood Agreement negotiations. As reported in The Windspeaker, Gillespie said that when the original agreement was submitted for ratification in 1978, Canada neglected to budget any funds for its implementation and later budgeted funds that were conditional on the extinguishment of agreement obligations.

One by one, said Gillespie, the other four communities were forced to abandon the flood agreement and sign implementation or comprehensive agreements in order to access desperately needed cash to meet the crushing economic and social needs of their people. According to Gillespie, Cross Lake, the poorest of the five communities, is being punished for holding out for the terms of the agreement.

Former Indian Affairs minister Warren Allmand, a principal architect of the 1977 agreement, appeared before the inquiry and told the commissioners the original agreement was viewed as a modern-day treaty by the then Liberal government. Its intent was to provide the means for the communities to eradicate poverty and unemployment while combating the social ills plaguing them.

The community next door to Cross Lake, Norway House Cree Nation, which did sign the implementation agreement, is now in financial crisis mode, saddled with a $72-million deficit, a gift from the former band council. Norway House band leaders called a meeting on April 5 to address the financial mess they inherited. At issue is the interest on the $72-million deficit, which costs the band $9-million a year in debt servicing. A referendum to vote on cashing in some Hydro bonds to rein in this debt will be held soon.