CANADA

A season of deaths

Tragedy plagues a resource-rich Alberta reserve

DALE EISLER September 8 1997
CANADA

A season of deaths

Tragedy plagues a resource-rich Alberta reserve

DALE EISLER September 8 1997

A season of deaths

CANADA

Tragedy plagues a resource-rich Alberta reserve

If money could buy happiness, and if idyllic surroundings soothe the soul, then the 3,300 members of Wesley, Chiniki and Bearspaw bands living on the Stoney Indian reserve should be among the most contented people in Canada. Aside from the spectacular beauty of their land at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, 60 km west of Calgary, the 440square-kilometre reserve is rich in natural gas resources that this year will pump $12 million into its total budget of $50 million. Yet 60 per cent of the population is on social assistance, and the reserve struggles with the same depressing cycles of unemployment, alcohol abuse and violence that afflict many native communities across Canada. What makes Stoney exceptional this summer is that, since June, its residents have gathered six times to bury young members of their community.

Of the three men and three women, from ages 19 to 29, who lost their lives, one was murdered, one committed suicide, one died in hospital and the three others died in car mishaps—and ï alcohol was a factor in every case.

All six have been eulogized as good people who left behind a troubled life. Off the record, many § residents say the deceased were victims of a social malaise en| couraged by their leaders’ mis3 management of the resource inFuneral come, which reached as much as $30 million a year at its peak in the 1970s. Change is all but impossible, those critics maintain, under a political system that rewards supporters of the chiefs with better housing and services and punishes their critics.

Although the Alberta government has rejected a provincial judge’s call for a judicial review of alleged corruption in the reserve leadership, the federal Indian affairs department is arranging for a forensic audit of the reserve books. It will also work with the reserve on a joint task force examining social conditions. Former chief Frank Kaquitts, 72, says an investigation should have been done “long ago.” But few other residents are willing to go public with their concerns. “If people have evidence of wrongdoing,” says Fred Jobin, acting re-

gional director of Indian Affairs in Alberta, “they should give it to the RCMP and it will be investigated.” ‘What’s the point?” counters a 21-year-old band member who asked not to be named. “If you make waves your life becomes even worse.”

Wesley band elder Joe Brown blames the reserve’s misery squarely on the easy resource money that in boom times put as much as $500 a month into adult band members’ pockets. Reserve residents still receive $60 each month in gas revenues. We lived a happier, simpler life,” says the soft-

spoken 75-year-old Brown. “The problem is that young people now just wait for their cheque and go buy booze.”

Over the years, Stoney tribal councils have tried to develop a self-sustaining economy. Straddling the Trans-Canada Highway along the heavily travelled corridor between Calgary and Banff National Park, the reserve has concentrated on the tourist industry. It operates a 50-room hotel and conference centre, a roadside restaurant and craft store, and a small strip mall. Its own social programs include a health centre and drug and alcohol counselling.

Still, while not managing to escape the cycle of unemployment and welfare dependency, the Stoney reserve has run up a $5.6million budget deficit. Moving to address its problems last June, the tribal council

hired Rick Butler, former city administrator of Revelstoke, B.C., to help sort out the financial mess and put in place proper management controls. Last week, the tribal council approved a new budget aimed at eliminating its deficit through a series of moves that includes cutting back on travel by reserve officials, clamping down on overtime, curbing the use of outside consultants and closing a band office in Calgary. “It’s a first step,” says Butler. We have a plan and now we have to get there.” But even if the reserve balances its budget, questions will linger as to how the Stoney got into such a state of economic and social turmoil.

The strongest allegations of corruption have come from off the reserve. In June, just as the spate of deaths was starting, Alberta provincial court Judge John Reilly directed the Alberta justice department to investigate a situation he likened to “a dictatorship of a banana republic.” Postponing sentencing of a band member convicted of assault-

ing his wife, Reilly said he first needed a report on social conditions and allegations of corruption on the reserve. The three bands that make up the Stoney First Nation have replied by filing a complaint against the judge with the Judicial Council of Canada.

The provincial government says Reilly’s call for a judicial review exceeded his jurisdiction. The budget auditor and the task force, whenever they report, could provide some direction for change. But as reserve residents mourn the loss of the six young people, they are impatient for conditions to improve. “This is a community that is suffering terribly,” says tribal council member Tina Fox. “Somehow we have to take control of our lives.”

DALE EISLER on the Stoney reserve