The signs facing the highway said this was a protest, but the gathering Thursday morning outside the Liard First Nation band office was a peaceful one. People sat close at crowded picnic tables, eager to tell their side of this seemingly never-ending story.
“This is primarily about the elders for me,” said Vianna Abou, one of the organizers, as she flipped burgers and turned hotdogs at one of the barbecues set up to feed the demonstrators.
“Times are changing too quickly for them to keep up and they have lost their voice in participating in what happens with the people. I want to help them know what to do to be heard in these changing times. They have the right to be heard.
“Also, I am a businesswoman, I know how a business works and I would like to see this band run their businesses with the accountability and transparency that the chief promised us when he was elected.”
The protest began at 10 a.m. Thursday morning with around 20 people. By 2 p.m., more people arrived. Many were elders who asserted that their wishes were being ignored.
Demonstrators expressed a grab-bag of concerns. Some objected with Chief Liard McMillan’s decision to hold the First Nation’s general assembly in late August at Frances Lake.
“We can’t have a GA at Frances Lake, it is too far for many of our elders,” said Agnes Charlie. “Some are not in good health and need to stay near the hospital, and others find the trip to Frances too much for them. It’s not good when our elders don’t get a chance to speak.”
Timing is another concern. Many First Nation members will be out hunting during the general assembly dates, said Abou.
Protesters asserted that the last general assembly held by the First Nation was in 2009. That meeting was in Watson Lake.
Last month, a petition circulated Watson Lake, calling for another general assembly. It garnered 120 signatures but was ignored, said Rose Caesar.
Both Abou and Caesar claim that many members of the territory’s southeastern, unsigned First Nation have lost confidence in McMillan and his councillors.
They also faulted McMillan for not communicating with members about the First Nation’s finances and deals struck with mining companies operating in the area.
“Everybody’s in the dark, we’re all mushrooms,” said Abou.
“Mining companies don’t speak to the citizens directly,” said Caesar. “And we don’t even see the agreements made with them on our behalf. The land belongs to all of us.”
“It’s about time someone listened to us,” said Barb Morris. “We don’t have freedom of speech since Liard took over. He is a dictator. We go too long without meetings or even newsletters.
“When we did have a GA the agenda was already set. There was no financial report. It is wrong that the people are not told what is going on with our money and our land.”
“There is too much favouritism,” said Helen Scott. “Some people get treated really well and others get nothing.”
Cronyism was mentioned by most everyone at some point, including allegations that McMillian went down the list of signatories on last month’s petition like a “hit list.”
Some people got harassing phone calls and others lost jobs, even if they were just related to people who signed the petition, Abou alleged.
Others asserted that band money is being misspent.
“We have hungry people here while others are making huge amounts of money,” said Mary Caesar. “We don’t know how much money is coming in or how much money is going out.”
Protesters fell silent when McMillan’s interview with CBC Radio was turned up on a car radio.
The chief downplayed the size of an earlier protest staged on Tuesday, during which time the entrance to the band office was blocked.
Abou has asserted that more than 100 demonstrators were present. But McMillan said only five or six people were actually protesting, while the rest were waiting to pick up social assistance cheques.
The protesters barricaded the aboriginal government’s office by lacing chains and locking up the doors Tuesday. Chains were voluntarily removed from the main building so staff who distribute social assistance cheques could get in, while McMillan had his staff cut the rest of the locks and take down all of the protesters’ signs, said Abou.
McMillan also dismissed calls for a new general assembly to be set.
But the demonstrators have announced they will be holding their own general assembly in Watson Lake on July 17 to 20 instead.
“Whether the chief is there or not,” Abou added.
And, like the protesters, McMillan claimed to be respecting the wishes of community elders in the radio interview.
McMillan didn’t respond to several calls from the News before press time.
When the radio interview finished, the protesters’ conversations grew more heated.
“He doesn’t answer any of the questions in a way that we can understand,” said one dissenter. “And he invites us to come and see him in the office. He is hardly ever there, and he’s been abusive to some people who have criticized him.”
Other issues that surfaced around the picnic tables in front of the band office were housing, jobs and social assistance.
The processing of social assistance cheques used to be done at the band office in Watson Lake and is now done in Whitehorse.
“Some people have waited days for that money,” said Caesar. “And their cupboards are bare.”
Some cheered when McMillan said on air that he would not run for another term. Mostly, though, there was a feeling that he ought to step down now.
“What kind of democracy is Liard talking about?” asked Agnes Chief. “Council members are not respectful, there are threats and bullying, and Liard is nowhere around.”
“He might as well step down, we never see him anyway,” another elder said.
McMillan is serving his fourth term, after first being elected nine years ago. He announced in January this term would be his last. There were protests held then, demanding he resign.
“Between now and the end of my three-year term, I intend to do everything in my power to fulfill my mandate,” McMillan said in January, when the protests were shut down by extremely cold weather. “I have always acted in good faith in that regard and have always worked hard and to the best of my ability. I believe I have been as accountable as I could possibly be.”
With notes from Roxanne Stasyszyn.