He never intended to fall in love.
Scott Atkinson went to Pikangikum, Ont., to do good and bring his incurable optimism to one of the country’s most dysfunctional reserves.
But along the way Mr. Atkinson, a 35-year-old teacher from Nova Scotia, also met the woman he wants to marry. And for that, he alleges, he was drummed out of town – along with an entire police detachment.
On Thursday, Mr. Atkinson accepted a $21,000 cheque from the band. In return, he signed a statement promising not to sue for wrongful dismissal, according to his lawyer, Reid Thompson.
The tale of how Mr. Atkinson arrived at this point tells a little about love and a lot about the wide-ranging power held by native-community governments across Canada, according to experts.
Pikangikum is a fly-in community, 230 kilometres north of Kenora, where 90 per cent of homes lack sewer service. All its electricity comes from a single diesel generator. In the past, news stories have given the 2,600-person Ojibwa reserve several monikers: Suicide Capital of the World, Gasoline Alley, even Hell. It is a place that, like many of Canada’s reserves, thwarts good intentions and jades hope – just the kind of place to which Mr. Atkinson gravitates.
For 7½ years, he has devoted himself to teaching in remote aboriginal villages, places where school competes with gas-sniffing and alcohol for students’ attention.
His interest began at Trent University, where he took courses touching on aboriginal history. “By the time I went to teachers’ college, I knew I wanted to go north,” he said in an interview this week. “Working in the north isn’t for everyone. But I knew it was for me.”
He started in the nearby Poplar Hill community and then, 2½ years ago, moved to Pikangikum, where he was named teacher of the year. “I was getting through to those kids,” he said. “My attendance rate was 84 per cent.” (Many classes hovered around 50 per cent.)
He fell in love with the north; then he fell in love with a northern girl. Roslyn Keeper was a secretary for the local Ontario Provincial Police detachment. They met playing cards with friends and, in a flash, her smile quashed his monkish mindset. He later learned that she had recently broken up with the son of Chief Gordon Peters.
Ms. Keeper and Mr. Atkinson started dating in November. Two months later, after school on Jan. 8 of this year, he was handed an undated letter from the Pikangikum Education Authority. “It has come to our attention that your conduct in the community has for some time been inappropriate,” it stated. He was fired and asked to leave town that night.
“This happens when you have small governments with big power,” said Joseph Quesnel, an analyst specializing in aboriginal governance with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Winnipeg-based think tank. In some communities, he said, leaders have been tempted to use their influence for partisan or personal ends.
Mr. Peters and other members of the Pikangikum band council refused to comment on this matter. They referred all calls to their lawyer, Doug Keshen, who said the band and the school considered Mr. Atkinson “a safety concern.”
“We have two pages of complaints about him relating to his various activities,” Mr. Keshen said. “He was asked to leave for a number of reasons relating to his personal life, not least of which was his screwing around with every woman in Pikangikum.”
Mr. Atkinson and his lawyer deny that charge. “Nobody has ever raised any explanation whatsoever to justify his termination other than his single relationship,” Mr. Thompson said.
“No one has ever produced any evidence that there were complaints about him.”
Mr. Atkinson left, but returned just over a month later at the pleading of Ms. Keeper’s family. He hadn’t intended to fall in love, but he wasn’t about to abandon it so easily.
Still, he tried to lay low, never straying from the Keepers’ cluster of homes – until, on March 9, OPP officers from the local six-member detachment came knocking with a band-council resolution stating that “should Mr. Atkinson not immediately leave the community of Pikangikum First Nation, the OPP are to immediately take whatever measures required to ensure that this individual is removed.”
The officers told Mr. Atkinson that, based on a lawyer’s advice, they had no intention of carrying out the resolution. “We can’t enforce that,” an OPP officer (not authorized to speak on the record) told The Globe and Mail. When they reported back, the officer said, the chief was livid.
“This has to do with the first nation wanting their bylaws and band-council resolutions to be honoured and enforced by the police,” Mr. Keshen said. “Their bylaws are passed pursuant to the Indian Act, which is basically federal law. The police should be enforcing those bylaws.”
At 7:30 p.m. on March 10, several band members arrived at an apartment where two officers lived. They told them to leave the town within 48 hours or else “they ‘could not guarantee [their] safety,’ ” the police officer said. The two slept in the OPP office that night.
The next day, the band council put the demand in writing. A resolution of March 11 states that “the OPP shall be ordered to immediately leave Pikangikum First Nation” if they did not remove Mr. Atkinson.
Again, based on legal advice, the OPP refused. By March 13 – after one council member threatened to bulldoze the OPP detachment with members inside, according to the officer – the force pulled out of Pikangikum altogether.
Fearing for his safety, Mr. Atkinson decided to go with them. Forced to choose between the place she called home and the man she loved, Ms. Keeper left as well.
A crew from the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service in Thunder Bay took the OPP’s place. “They got a 10-minute orientation,” the OPP officer said.
In the past three weeks, the OPP has been negotiating to re-enter the town. Sergeant Shelley Garr confirmed the general timeline of events, but could not provide a detailed account. “Things got a little heated,” she said, “but there were no threats made under the Criminal Code.”
Many aboriginal-governance researchers insist that what is really to blame here is not the individuals, but a process and structure under which these authorities lack the checks and balances found at other levels of government.
“It’s easy to malign these politicians,” said John Graham, senior associate with the Institute on Governance in Ottawa. “But I’m a great believer that people behave according to the crucible in which they were formed. They didn’t design this system.”
Ms. Keeper and Mr. Atkinson, now living with his parents in Mahone Bay, N.S., know all about crucibles. The past three months of agony have become, for them, an affirmation.
“Because of what we’ve been through, I know this is the person I want to marry,” Mr. Atkinson said. “Maybe we’ll blame ourselves, but she’s sitting beside me now, the farthest from Pik she’s ever been. And I know she’s the one.”
Patrick White is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Winnipeg bureau.