[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
FORT ST. JOHN -- It sounds like a fairytale ending -- the $147-million pot of gold at the end of a 20-year rainbow. But a federal oil and gas compensation deal for 500 native Indians on two reserves north of here shows every sign of turning into a horror story, fuelled by anger and bitterness.
In the land where the crew-cab is king, many people in this city of 16,000 see the settlement like a lottery jackpot for members of the nearby Doig River Band and Blueberry River Band.
An hour away, on bumpy, rutted roads, tensions on the two reserves are bubbling below the surface, like the oil and gas that pumps out of the wells and flare stacks which dot the snowy fields.
What's feeding the flames is the money or -- more specifically -- who controls it. On one side is a vision by chiefs and councils of a permanent trust fund to provide a legacy for education, buying land, creating jobs and preserving the native culture. "It's a lengthy process to set this up so everybody will benefit," says Barb Davis, a band councillor for the Doig River First Nation. "We have to think about the long term and the future for our kids."
On the other side is a feeling of mistrust as band members accuse their leaders of lack of accountability and of shutting them out of decision-making on who gets how much money and how the rest will be spent. "If they get control of that money... we're back to square one," says a bitter Ferlin Makadahay, 27, who lives with his girlfriend and two young kids on the Doig River reserve. "Nobody says anything because they see that money flash in front of their eyes."
Like the joker in the middle of the pack is a third group of 488 people, claiming to be descendants of the original Beaver Band, who are going to court in March to seek a piece of the action. "It's like winning the 6/49," says Doig band manager Warren Reade. "The relatives come out of the woodwork."
There are teams of lawyers and accountants hired by the two bands to help administer the new-found wealth. So far, the $147 million has been split into three. The Doig and Blueberry bands each have one third and the remaining third is being held aside until descendants' claims are heard. Meanwhile, dozens of shiny, new $40,000 pick-up trucks bear witness to the fact that, already, adult band members have received between $70,000 and $100,000 each since April. Local dealers say they've sold about 60 trucks since April and Ford sales manager Bob Fraas says dealers from Edmonton sent in busloads of salesman, setting off a "feeding frenzy."
The situation is far more complex than a question of merely doling out large sums of money. The settlement came after the natives in 1945 unwittingly gave up oil and gas rights on "the Montney lands," a parcel north of Fort St. John. The land was given to veterans returning from the Second World War and later proved rich in oil. The bands launched a court case in 1978 which ended in March when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Ottawa had failed in its duty to look after the interests of the native Indians.
Initial news reports suggested that the 300 Blueberry and 200 Doig band members would each get $367,500 as a result of the settlement. The reality is far different but the raised expectations have re-opened many old wounds on the reserves. There are long-standing family feuds and political rivalries based on who wields power in the band offices. There is a history of poverty and the struggle to win jobs in the oil patch. There are rumors hinting at everything from creative book-keeping and favouritism on work contracts to stories of one band official riding back from town in a limo. A further complication is that about one-third of band members live off the reserve and cannot vote in band elections.
Take a drive round the two reserves and, apart from the new trucks, there's little sign of the windfall that's hit residents. Both reserves are in valleys, surrounded by muskeg that's not suitable for farming. The Doig band office -- jokingly referred to by some residents as "The White House" because of the power centred there -- is a plain building with wooden siding and worn linoleum, that looks badly in need of decorating. At Blueberry, known by some as "Little Kuwait" because, at night, the sky is lit up by the two dozen flare stacks that ring the reserve, the band office is an Atco trailer.
Some members are upset with how the money is being distributed. On the Doig reserve, for example, there's a plan to build a $3 million band hall.
When members signed for their money, they say, they were also asked to sign an agreement that the interest on their children's $50,000, which will be held in trust until they are 19, could be used by the chiefs and councils for "general operating expenses."
"We had no say," says Blueberry band member Malcolm Apsassin. "It wasn't right. The band members were forced to make those agreements. When the cheques were issued, they had the agreement sitting on the table." Apsassin, a contractor clearing pipeline rights-of-way, says he's lost work because he's been outspoken at band meetings "We didn't understand the agreements that the lawyers had drafted up for the community," he said. "Nobody explained it. I said the chief and council should go page by page and explain. In the settlement, they said if we don't accept it, we may get nothing at all."
Blueberry Chief Norman Yahey and three band councillors were away in Edmonton this week at a financial management course and couldn't be reached for comment. Financial consultant Larry Hutchinson, who's been hired by the band, said there'll be a general band meeting in January to look at proposals. "There isn't tons of money flowing around here," he said. "It's being set up to benefit the community and descendants. We don't have the ability to cut cheques for $300,000. These people were poor. This is more than winning the lottery, it's kind of overwhelming."
In Fort St. John, RCMP Sgt. Doug Greep says there's been a slight increase in calls to the reserve. "There's been a little bit more partying, but nothing that we would be alarmed at," he said. "We have only seen positives. For the most part, people here have accepted it, that it was due to them. They share it by coming into town and spending it."
For their part, the Blueberry band members say that shortly after stories about the settlement broke, a truck full of "rednecks" tried to run the school bus off the road.
Teresa Stewart, 31, is a Doig band member who lives in Fort St. John with her husband Rory and three young children who don't have Indian status. She's one of a large number of women who married non-natives and who are trying to get their children considered descendants. She says she's spent $40,000 in legal bills on the claim and in challenging the way the band is setting up the trust fund. "A lot of the band members feel there's no accountability by our leaders," she said. "We'd like to have a say in the trust. This is not like budget money from Indian Affairs, it's an inheritance from our ancestors from the Montney claim."
Stewart's mother, Margaret Rothlisberger, lost her Indian status when she married a non-native in 1966. Stewart and her mom got their status back in 1985 but both say they're treated as second-class citizens by people on the reserve and have no say in how the funds are handled.
Back on the Doig reserve, Chief Kelvin Davis won't answer specific complaints and dismisses criticisms as negativity. "Everything is positive," he says. "There's no false illusion." Behind him, on the wall in the band lunch room, is mounted a buffalo head and beside it a handwritten sign reads, "May I ask someone out there to please move me over or get me out of here. It's a real headache butting heads with people around here. I would like it to stop. Thanks, yours truly, Buffy."
After losing at both the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada found in their favour, ruling the Indians never intended to include mineral rights in the original deal with the Department of Indian Affairs.
Letters to The Province: firstname.lastname@example.org