This March, some 100 members of the Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation met at Plaza 88 in Prince Albert.
Many came from Saskatoon, Edmonton and La Ronge. Some had never been to their reserve, which sits on the eastern shore of Lake Athabasca, just south of the border with the Northwest Territories.
They shared their grievances. They say they’re “outcasts,” that the band leadership chronically ignores its 900 or so off-reserve members. They chose leaders. One was Marco Theriault, a former band councillor.
“Right off the bat they said ‘we need leaders like you guys, who’ll start sticking up for us,’” Theriault said. “They were tired of being ignored and they wanted to be listened to… that’s why I ran for chief.”
He soon found himself banned from his own reserve, and is now contemplating a lawsuit against the band.
A LONG LIST OF GRIEVANCES
The urban members have frustrations going back decades. The members say they can’t access the same benefits as on-reserve members. They say they don’t get the support for education, hunting or funeral expenses that they believe they’re entitled to.
But one complaint recurs over and over again: Christmas bonuses.
When Theriault was a band councillor, he said, on-reserve members were getting $250 per head from the band for the holidays. But the people he met in urban areas told him they were getting far less, if anything at all. Band members told the Daily Herald exactly the same thing.
“We didn’t like the way they were giving out Christmas bonuses, because it’s just a gift card,” said band member Elsie Denton.
“They either give out a Walmart gift card – they come with a suitcase full of them – or they come with $100 cash,” said her husband Steve.
Celine Pearson has noticed the same issue. She said it doesn’t seem fair. She doesn’t buy the argument that higher on-reserve payments are needed to pay for more expensive food.
“The Fond Du Lac off-reserve people, we have the same household budget,” said Pearson, also an off-reserve band member. “We pay for property taxes, we pay for our house insurance – most of us have our own house and they get a house for free.”
Betty Randhile said she basically had to beg for her $100. “People on reserve have been getting those Christmas bonuses every year,” the Edmonton-based band member argues.
And she’s had far more trouble accessing other benefits. The band gets funding from the federal government’s Post-Secondary Student Support Program to help members pay tuition and living expenses while they study. Randhile applied this year to pay for her social work program at the University of Calgary,
She soon got a response telling her there wasn’t any money left.
“Now I owe about $30,000,” she said. They wouldn’t even pay for my textbooks.”
Randhile has her suspicions about why she might have been denied.
“Some of us haven’t lived on the reserve all our lives, so maybe that’s why they reject some of us,” she said. “I’m a band member, so I should have been entitled to the post-secondary program.”
She said it makes her feel “angry and excluded.” Even when she goes visiting on the reserve, she said she feels like an outcast.
Ralph Chille, who lives out of province, said the same pattern recurs from one generation to the next. Twenty years ago, he tried and failed to get the band to fund his post-secondary studies. This January, his niece’s daughter went through the same struggles.
He said she did all the paperwork. But she never heard a response, and is now paying for her studies herself.
That leaves Chille feeling like he wants to scream.
“All band members should be entitled to this, regardless of where you live,” he said. “If you have a treaty card and you belong to a band, you should have access to these funds regardless of where you live… it doesn’t matter what side of the fence you are on.”
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada provided information about the program to the Daily Herald. A representative said that the money they provide is administered by the band, and that the band is free to determine “the funding and selection criteria in accordance with national guidelines.”
The guidelines do not appear to provide specific rules on eligibility for on-reserve members, and residency status does not appear on a list of “potential selection priorities.”
However, the representative also noted that funding is limited, and sometimes students see their applications deferred.
A TEMPORARY EXILE
Theriault heard all those concerns during the meeting in March. He asked the members to write letters, gathered them together and sent them to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. He moved to hire a lawyer.
But Theriault had another thought. An election for chief and council was set for the fall. Theriault had wanted to run for chief for years, and said he got further encouragement from the urban members. He thought he could get them out to vote and build a solid base of supporters.
“I had all the urban people on my side,” Theriault said.
But as the months went by, he began to hear talk that his candidacy would be blocked. So he travelled to Fond Du Lac, both as a campaign stop, and to check up on the rumours.
He didn’t get far.
“I’m only there for 24 hours,” he said. “I didn’t even make it past the RCMP station that’s halfway through the town. That’s when the RCMP, they sent one of my cousins.”
Theriault’s cousin said chief and council wanted him gone. Theriault called the RCMP, and learned that there was a band council resolution banning him from the reserve.
He left, but returned weeks later – after the resolution supposedly expired. He came with the documents he needed to submit his candidacy, and claims he got them in just before the deadline.
An electoral officer examined them, and ruled that he wasn’t eligible. Theriault insists that he followed all the rules, but the electoral officer claimed he was late with his criminal record check. She also said he had “band files and paperwork in his possession.” Theriault admits that he was posting documents to his Facebook page during his campaign.
So Theriault never became an official candidate. He said he was thrown off the reserve again during a nomination meeting. He later appealed to a band tribunal, which also found that he was “not a qualified candidate.” He now plans to bring the matter to the Court of Queen’s Bench.
The Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Theriault’s candidacy and about the urban members’ concerns. They received a list of questions in advance by fax and noted that they received them, but never made anyone available for a response.
The Herald also left phone messages at the band office.
The urban members say that reflects their own experience.
“Even if you try to phone them, they won’t respond,” said Randhile. “They don’t answer their phone.”