An occupation of the Burns Lake band office in northern B.C. ended dramatically on April 7 when between 30 and 50 RCMP officers stormed the building–some allegedly with firearms drawn–to evict seven protesters holed up inside, including four children, who were demanding the chief’s resignation and an Aboriginal Affairs audit of band finances.
Albert Gerow, chief of the 101-member First Nation–who is married to former BC NDP leader Carole James–told Windspeaker that calling in the police was “never an easy decision to make, but nonetheless, it was one that definitely needed to be made,” because the protesters were illegally occupying the office since March 25, impeding day-to-day operations, and allegedly nailing shut the daycare’s emergency exit.
Protestors say they are still reeling after the occupation’s abrupt end, alleging that one police officer aimed a loaded gun at the 12-year-old son of protest spokesperson and former councillor Ryan Tibbetts, leaving his child traumatized. One of the band’s two elected councillors called the massive police response “uncalled for.”
“[Tibbett’s] 12-year old son was in there with him,” Burns Lake Councillor Ron Charlie said. “His son couldn’t go to school the whole week. He was crying all the time. One officer had a gun and raised it at him; he saw the police officer raise the pistol to them.
“For him to get that many police officers for a couple people occupying the band office, it blows my mind... They wouldn’t allow me across the crime tape; they said it was a crime scene, but they allowed Chief Gerow in the building. They pretty much treated me like a criminal, not allowing me to access the building.”
B.C. RCMP did not respond to several interview requests about the incident. But Gerow told Windspeaker that Tibbetts and other protestors have exaggerated their accounts of the raid. He insisted that it is police “protocol” to draw their firearms when searching a building.
“There was a lot of misinformation provided by this group after that incident,” Gerow said. “At the time police entered the building there was no way of knowing whether there would have been one protestor or as many as 25 to 30. Thankfully there were only a few. They left the building when requested to do so, and no arrests were made.”
The First Nation’s band office, located in a former school building in the town of Burns Lake, is not actually inside any of the four reserves that make up Burns Lake Indian Band, also known as Ts’il Kaz Koh. The band is a member of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. But simmering tensions between on- and off-reserve membership boiled over in the months since band elections last October.
The office occupation began on March 25, escalating months of brewing tensions. Charlie, newly elected to council, accused Gerow and fellow Councillor Dan George–who live off-reserve–of lacking financial transparency, ignoring the needs of reserve residents (about 35 people), and shutting him out of band decisions. Gerow, in turn, retorted that Charlie had not shown up for meetings or his job for months.
The divisions came to a head in January, when a relative of Gerow’s alleged that Charlie had bribed him with a job promise during the 2012 election campaign, a claim Charlie disputes as a set-up to remove him from office.
With only two councillors and the chief in charge of Burns Lake band’s affairs, the schism deepened when Charlie demanded the chief’s resignation in February–backed by his father, former chief Gusgumgoot (Rob Charlie), and Gerow’s unsuccessful election rival, former councillor Ryan Tibbetts.
“They’re not being transparent,” Councillor Charlie said. “One of the questions I have is who are Albert, Dan and myself accountable to when things like this arise at the band office?
“The members are not being consulted with band business... That’s one of the reasons I ran for the 2012 elections: the members were in the dark... The members and myself have lost all faith in the guy.”
But Gerow believes that sour grapes lie underneath what he sees as an attempted coup, citing the links between Councillor Charlie, his father’s 22 years as chief, and Tibbett’s failed leadership bid last year. He cited a number of economic projects and job training programs as evidence he has served the interests of on-reserve residents, while critics say he has focused on economics at the expense of the community and the land.
“In my mind, it’s purely politically driven,” Gerow said. “Ever since [the election]–when they weren’t successful–there’s been this small group of people who’ve begun a campaign to try to oust Councillor Dan George and myself.
“We have worked tirelessly to improve the conditions for our on-reserve members... Right from day one, anyone who knows us in the local community knows the dedication and hard work George and I have done to improve the band.”
With the eviction of the occupation, however, the tensions have in no way subsided. When Councillor Charlie arrived for work the day after the protest ended, he received a letter notifying him he had lost his job as Education and Youth Coordinator for the band, in effect cutting his salary by two-thirds.
“In the letter, it said I have actively and openly engaged with supporters of the protest,” Charlie told Windspeaker. “I was just making sure of the health and safety of members while they occupied the band office.
“They’re people I’ve known my whole life. I was there for support, like any band councillor should be. That’s what I was elected for. I didn’t man the occupation of the building.”
He said that his concerns over the band’s financial affairs–and what he sees as off-reserve leaders shutting reserve residents out of their decisions–led him to run for office. Upon his election, however, he alleges he received no orientation, nor job description, and was repeatedly asked to sign band council resolutions that Gerow and George had already drafted, without input. He called for Aboriginal Affairs to conduct a third-party audit of band finances, but Gerow told Windspeaker he has promised to commission an independent audit.
In some ways, the rift in Burns Lake also touches on controversial federal legislation, Bill C-27, which imposes penalties on First Nations that do not disclose leaders’ salaries and band expenses to the public. An announcement in March about the law’s enactment led to clashes in Winnipeg. For Charlie, transparency is why he ran for office, and he won’t give up.
“Members kept coming up to me, wanting to know what’s happening, and to see what deals were happening,” Charlie told Windspeaker. “So I requested some financial information, just to be transparent. Like with members, they started ignoring my requests.”
For Charlie’s father, Gusgumgoot– who was part of the occupation–the police raid has dampened his trust in police and in the band’s leadership. During his time as chief, Gusgumgoot said he even faced blockades of the road to his house, but resolved them without resorting to calling police.
“I just don’t feel safe in this town anymore,” he said. “We were treated like terrorists.
“They were armed to the teeth... I wish there were media there; it was an all-out war against us. For me, it was eerie. One wrong move and ‘Boom!’ One wrong move would have caused somebody serious damage. Who would have witnessed anything? If one of us made a move, we would have been having a funeral last week.”