Published in Windspeaker newspaper | April 26, 2013 | Circulation: 145,000
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.”