Hagwilget members board up band office, demand Chief Cynthia Joseph's resignation.
A group of frustrated band members in the First Nations community of Hagwilget near New Hazelton has boarded up the entrance to the reserve's band office.
They're demanding the resignation of Chief Councillor Cynthia Joseph and that band council elections be held in the community immediately.
“We've only boarded it on the side,” said Tamara Murrell, a Hagwilget band member and a spokesperson for the protestors.
“We haven't vandalized anything. We're not here protesting that way."
Joseph and the rest of Hagwilget council were elected to two-year terms in the summer of 2019, meaning elections would normally begin this time of year. However, the chief and council applied to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) for an extension of their terms, and demonstrators says the elections nomination process has not started in the community.
But at the heart of the conflict are also allegations of bullying and harassment against Chief Joseph.
"The main concern is her treatment of her people,” said Murrell. “She doesn't treat us like normal people, and the people are just done with the bullying."
Months ago, a petition was put together demanding the resignation of chief and council due to alleged bullying and harassment.
Murrell alleges Chief Joseph tried to retaliate against people who signed the petition through actions such as eviction threats or dismissing people’s family members from work positions.
"She basically was a child throwing a tantrum when things weren't going her way or when people weren't listening to her," she said.
“She would literally walk into people's houses [and say] ‘I was told you were dealing drugs here, I want to look around.’ And that's not right. You do not barge into people's places.”
Rose Austin is the health director for Hagwilget, though she's currently on medical leave due to the stress she experienced in the office. She says she witnessed how chief and council would refuse to sign medical travel cheques from the First Nations Health Authority for people who signed the petition.
“If they signed the petition, they went and used that petition and anybody who had to have health travel was given a no,” she said. “They had final say because they signed the cheques, and there was lots of stuff that was brought upstairs to be processed and was not processed accordingly."
Band member Cory Dominic also expressed frustration with the Hagwilget band office. He says he tried to contact them for financial help with an alcohol-use recovery program he was attending in Prince George. Though he was initially told he could receive help, he says the band office kept deferring his requests.
"They would tell me they were busy and they would get to it, or they were busy and they had to do something else,” he said. “They continuously told me that they were busy.”
He suspects the band office was ignoring him as a result of his support of the petition and his history of alcohol use.
In an emailed statement to CFTK, a spokesperson from ISC says the Hagwilget First Nation Government is still scheduled to hold an Indian Act election in August 2021, but chief and council have advised the department they will be submitting a resolution to postpone their election to October 2nd.
It said First Nations governments are able to postpone their elections as a tool to help manage COVID-19 risks within communities, and that terms can be extended for up to six months.
However, ISC says it has so far not received a band council resolution from Hagwilget.
A letter written by the Hagwilget First Nation Government (HFNG) obtained by CFTK says the community has postponed elections to early October 2021 due to the operational hardships experienced as a result of COVID-19.
"The delay in elections is not to the maximum duration permitted by the Indian Act and its regulations," it reads. "Unfortunately, the current blockade is an impediment to the work, including appointing electoral officers and finalizing of a voters list."
CFTK has reached out to Chief Cynthia Joseph as well as Hagwilget councillors Kevin Pierre, Ron Austin and Jack Sebastian for comment, but so far none have responded.
Photo source: Liz-Patricia Austin (Facebook).