A group of on-reserve members of the Burns Lake Band (BLB) are positioning themselves to bring about the only solution to what they see as an intractable situation with current band governance.
On Nov. 19, BLB member and former BLB councillor Ryan Tibbetts, along with approximately 9 other band members, gave notice during a morning Chief and council meeting at the band office that they were moving ahead with separation on behalf of the on-reserve members they represent.
Burns Lake Band Chief Albert Gerow sees the issue as resulting from dissatisfaction with previous election results.
“It appears that some members who were either unsuccessful in being elected in the last election or unsatisfied with the election results are seeking only to disrupt and impede the ongoing activities of the duly elected Burns Lake Band leadership,” Gerow said.
Those community members wishing to formally separate from BLB have organized themselves under the name Nda Tez Dlee Whut’en (NTDW), which means ‘Water flows that way’, and have taken the formal step towards separation from the Burns Lake Band by notifying Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada (AANDC) of their decision.
In a subsequent open letter to the community at large, Tibbetts explained the move as the result of a loss of confidence that current band governance reflects the values and vision of the on-reserve community.
The letter also requests that businesses or individuals with new agreements or pending business negotiations with the band wait until after the separation process is complete before proceeding with those negotiations.
Chief Gerow responded that there is no process for separation underway, as it would require consent from Chief and council, ministerial approval and a vote by all BLB members approving separation.
According to current AANDC figures, BLB membership is 129 people. Tibbetts said that approximately 60 of those members live on-reserve in 18 households. According to their own polling, more than 90 per cent of on-reserve members support the move to separate.
Supporters of separation will be asked to sign consent documents formalizing their intent to separate.
Of concern to NTDW is the expansion of band membership under new AANDC rules which means the registered membership – and voting – list has grown. The details of the list, including name and addresses of the new members are not available to separation organizers.
The next election for band council would be next year, but NTDW believes off-reserve membership has grown enough to preclude the possibility of election results which reflect their interests and needs.
Dissatisfaction with band affairs led to a sit-in protest at the band office in Burns Lake earlier this year. The two-week protest was ended on April 7, 2013, when approximately 50 armed RCMP members from Burns Lake and area were called in to end the protest.
Relations between the protesting community and band council have not healed.
Former BLB Chief Robert Charlie described an on-reserve membership that is ready to move on from the recent past, without the need for further recrimination or complaint.
“We’re not here for confrontation,” Charlie said. “We know what we want to do on reserve. We want to experience a sense of freedom and belonging.”
Nda Tez Dlee Whut’en has notified AANDC of their intention and has invited representatives to visit the reserve and survey the concerns of those living there, although Tibbetts said NTDW hasn’t received a formal response from AANDC yet.
Separation organizers are proceeding with separation preparations. Tibbetts said one of the first priorities is to renovate an empty house on the BLB reserve in Burns Lake to serve as a temporary band office, where members will be able to go for social, medical, and employment services.
The NTDW is preparing required formal separation documents; the separation proposal, interim management plan, communication protocol, and governance structure proposal.
A statement from AANDC suggests a hands-off approach to the current situation.
“Band Council’s are responsible to negotiate the internal process to divide a Band,” said AANDC B.C. communications manager Jehan Casey. “Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development may assist in an advisory role only, by providing information and answering questions related to the New Bands [or] Band Amalgamation Policy. The Burns Lake Indian Band’s governance issues are an internal matter.”
Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada has not received a band council resolution (BCR) to begin separation, although AANDC is ‘aware that a group of community members have presented a request to separate to the Chief and counc. Dan George.’
While a band council resolution (BCR) agreeing to separation could be a part of the separation process, Tibbetts doesn’t believe one will be forthcoming as BLB Chief and council votes do not add up to support for a separation BCR. This underlies their move to separate without a BCR.
Chief Gerow said that he has confirmed with AANDC that, “AANDC will neither support nor approve any such separation process.”
“Our thinking is that this is a small group of people who have been unhappy since the last election,” Gerow said. “AANDC has confirmed that we are the recognized administrators for the band. Aboriginal affairs does not take one side or the other.”
“If there were a split, the [whole] membership would have to negotiate and agree on everything that would need to be split. Following that, there would have to be referendum with the whole membership and it would have to pass with a majority of the membership.”