APTN National News
Hundreds of members from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation in Manitoba have signed a petition demanding that the chief resign from his position stating he is not working for the community.
At the moment, a small group of eight, headed by Rick Dumas and Arvel Spence, are heading into their second month of blockading the council office.
They told APTN News that a lack of transparency and accountability along with poor living conditions and a series of resignations have prompted them to take action.
“I’ve given up trying,” said community member Elias Spence by phone. “I don’t know who to talk to. The people don’t know where to go, there are no answers. We don’t know what to do now.”
(O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation member Elias Spence. The community is also known as South Indian Lake)
A protest camp was set up outside the band office on Sept. 18 after many conversations with the chief left some members concerns unresolved.
Dumas also launched a petition calling for the chief to step down. Approximately 1,300 live in the community and more than 400 members have signed on to the petition.
According to members, the current chief, Chris Baker, is never in the community.
They said Baker is only around two or three days out of the week and spends the rest of his time in Thompson, which is about 300 km away.
Members said this has left many in the community, 1,070 km north of Winnipeg, unsure of who to turn to.
Spence said he’s been trying to get help with the sewage tank on his property from chief and council for years without any luck.
He said years of use have left the tank with damage causing the tank to spill over every summer.
“My problem with the sewage and water I haven’t gotten any I’ve been requesting repairs and nothing has come my way,” said Spence.
(Some people in the community want issues like this damaged sewage tank dealt with.)
In August one of the councilors resigned due to a lack of support from Baker.
Rose Linklater was a councilor from Dec. 2015 to Aug. 2017.
She said none of the community’s problems were ever addressed because Baker wasn’t in the community.
“I mentioned to him a lot of times he was never there. I kept having to repeat myself over and over again,” said Linklater
Baker has held the position since 2014.
APTN spoke with Baker who confirmed his family lives in Thompson but said that he calls O-Pipon-Na-Piwin home.
He said he spends most of his time traveling across the province lobbying for support in his community.
“The chief is like a sasquatch. You never see him,” said Baker. “I have to travel to look for program and funding. If you stay at home you will catch nothing.”
Dumas said members are concerned about funding in the community.
He said many homes need repairs.
“We don’t know where any of the funding is going. We have no houses. We’re very short of housing. We were told every house would be hooked up to a main waterline,” said Dumas.
Arvel Spence said she is worried about the youth in the community.
“They don’t want to prioritize our children. Our children are the future,” said Spence.
“The youth have nothing in place for them. The youth centre they were promised are offices now.”
According to Baker, 46 homes have been renovated under Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada First Nation On-Reserve Housing Program.
He added the community is in the process of building a new school. They are trying to determine an appropriate location for the new school.
Dumas said he reached out to INAC for assistance with the concerns in the community but hasn’t heard back.
APTN contacted INAC and received this response:
“The O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation holds its elections under its own community election rules and not under the Indian Act election system; as such, the Department does not play a role in determining how the community’s leadership is selected or how governance disputes are resolved.”
The next election is set to take place August 2018 but chief and council have agreed to hold an early election in May.
For members of the protest camp, this isn’t soon enough.
They are still calling on Baker to step down immediately.
Baker said he will stay on as long as he’s been elected for.
“They should abide and honour the election code and the whole process of it,” he said.