Linda Chipesia, a former Chief and off-reserve member of the Blueberry River First Nations, correctly observed that a Blueberry River First Nations byelection was scheduled for January 10. The purpose of this byelection was to allow the late Daniel Apsassin Family Group to democratically replace their family representative on Council following the resignation of their previous family representative in October 2018. The newly elected Family Councillor is Robin Ewaskow.
The byelection was held under the Custom Election Code, which was adopted by a majority band membership vote following a special referendum in 2017. The referendum approved moving away from an Indian Act election process and governing system to the traditional family system of governance that ensures each family grouping has a voice on Council and extends the election cycle from two to four years. The reserved court decision Linda Chipesia references in her opinion piece relates to a legal challenge of the Custom Election Code brought forward by the Edward Apsassin Family Group, who were part of the minority that opposed reverting to the family systems of governance.
On January 11, the Federal Court ruled in favour of the respondent in this challenge, Blueberry River First Nations, and determined that “a broad consensus among the Band membership has been demonstrated” in favour of the Custom Election Code, and that “there is no evidence that the Edward Apsassin Family Group is historically disadvantaged or has been historically discriminated against.”
Contrary to the negative portrayal of the Band by former Chief Linda Chipesia, the Blueberry River First Nations enjoy an improved financial status since the current leadership took office following the December 2013 election. Although the Band once experienced financial challenges, Blueberry River First Nations is now delivering programs, services and projects on-time and on-budget and is no longer considered a high-risk recipient by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The Band is financially solvent and well-positioned to deliver cultural activities, to take steps to protect its traditional territory, and to preserve its inherent way of life for both the Dane-Zaa and Cree cultures which comprise this community.
Membership engagement and transparency continues to be a priority for the current leadership. The leadership continues to explore ways of improving communication with the membership and is taking steps to do so. In 2018, the elected Councillors conducted three meetings with their family groups (which included lawyers and accountants) to inform members of each of the families about the financial health of the Band, about the legal action concerning treaty land entitlement, mineral rights, as well as treaty rights, and about community programs and services. Further family meetings are scheduled for early February. Additionally, leadership recently arranged meetings for both on and off reserve members to work on a Comprehensive Community Plan (CCP) that provides all community members with the opportunity to voice and share their thoughts on what they want for the future of the Blueberry River First Nations.
Leadership has prioritized the protection of treaty rights with the Province of British Columbia and continues to work to ensure that our traditional territory is protected from unsustainable development, which includes protecting areas already devastated by industrial activities. Reclamation of our lands for traditional use and purposes is underway to ensure our children and the generations to come are able to practice their culture and way of life. The focus and energy on these subjects is unprecedented!
Blueberry River First Nations has many members who own their own businesses. Our leadership encourages entrepreneurship and contracting opportunities and supports all members in achieving commercial success. There is no reason why our members should not be benefiting from all the industrial activity in our traditional territory. Contrary to Linda Chipesia’s comments, Blueberry River First Nations does have employment opportunities available for qualified members seeking employment with our administration as well as with our business partners. In fact, we struggle to fill all of the many job vacancies that are advertised on our website. We offer training and education opportunities to all members seeking to enhance their qualifications and have very few members on social assistance except those with medical issues.
It is important to note that Blueberry River First Nations now has high speed internet/broadband that was brought into the community in 2018, which allows members to take online courses and promotes connectivity through the World Wide Web. A cellular tower near the administration office has also been erected to ensure efficient communication. Cultural nights with elders and youth, including a men’s night and other training programs have been implemented to ensure job readiness and community engagement. Everyone that wants to be working is working and the leadership continues to prioritize addressing barriers to employment.
Leadership has supported students to the maximum allowable as guided by INAC and continues to seek funds to support education. Additionally, training programs are ongoing and available to ensure we have members who are certified, skilled, and who can be qualified for job opportunities. It is our intention, that in time, with further education and training, we can employ many of our community members in administrative and management positions.
Finally, it is important to note that perhaps not every community member agrees with the direction chosen by the Blueberry River First Nations leadership, however, everyone should be prepared to recognize that Blueberry’s leadership is acting in good faith with the ultimate goal being that of community prosperity, which can be seen through our numerous positive accomplishments to-date. We want to continue focusing on what our community has in common, rather than magnifying our differences, and encourage our members to do the same.
— Blueberry River First Nation Chief and Council