The chief of Red Pheasant First Nation says he is responding to concerns raised by a group of women protesting his leadership.
Chief Stewart Baptiste said he plans to meet at least two of their main demands: to hold a band meeting and to pursue making Red Pheasant a dry reserve.
The plan is for a band meeting to be held at the end of July at Red Pheasant Hall, where he pledged everything would be laid out on the table, including financials.
He said representatives from the federal aboriginal affairs department would be there, and there are plans to talk about oil and gas and training initiatives at the meeting. An exact date and time are still to be arranged so the officials will be able to attend. They are also complying with the 30-day notice for a band meeting.
Baptiste also said they were moving ahead with discussions with the RCMP and with other organizations including BATC to pursue making Red Pheasant a “dry reserve,” one without alcohol or drugs. Baptiste said the council is currently looking at other reserves that have implemented the rule and compiling that information.
“We're all in favor of turning Red Pheasant into a dry reserve,” he said.
Baptiste also said the band was working to address housing.
Baptiste and a number of elders from the reserve met the Regional Optimist Wednesday at the Red Pheasant band office to respond to the protest.
During the meeting, several women continued their protest. They have spent the week operating from a teepee across from the band office.
Among their list of demands is for Baptiste to resign, for the Chief and Council to be accountable to the community rather than to the Indian Act, and for the band council to establish an independent and non-political housing authority to ensure equality and fairness in housing and allocations.
They are also demanding all resource funding be allocated to where it is needed most, highlighting clean cisterns, black mold removal, improving water delivery services; improving access roads to accommodate everyday travel to attain a livelihood and essential services to homes such as water delivery and school bus transportation.
Baptiste has been under fire from the group of opponents after being sentenced in provincial court last week for breach of probation.
The chief also awaits trial on impaired driving charges in Biggar later this year. His repeated run-ins with the law have been widely reported in local and provincial media.
In meeting with the Regional Optimist Wednesday, both Baptiste and several of the reserve's elders made clear they thought the media was one-sided in painting a negative picture of the state of affairs at Red Pheasant. They said there was not enough focus on the positive activities on the reserve.
Baptiste said the reserve was no longer in a deficit situation and that the books had been cleaned up. He also noted a number of training and life-skills initiatives, including truck driver training and certification to work in the oil and gas field, that were implemented to help youth to obtain jobs and get off of welfare.
He said a deal was signed with Northwest Regional College to train people over the next five years between 18 and 35 for jobs. Baptiste also said he and council took salary cuts to curb excess spending.
“I commend my council, they all work very hard, they've made sacrifices.”
Helen Tootoosis, an elder on Red Pheasant, pointed to the balanced books and the programs going on as positives. She said she was embarrassed by the protest.
“We're not used to having this kind of happening tarnishing Red Pheasant's name all the time,” said Tootoosis, who called the protests disrespectful.
“I wasn't taught that way to be very disrespectful of anybody.”
Tootoosis said the band held their election and Baptiste won, and believes that choice should be respected.
“They had the election and he came in. It's the people's choice,” said Tootoosis. “I'm happy. The people have spoken.”
Another elder, Pat Bugler, accused several protesters of not even living on the reserve. “They live on the outside, but don't know what's going on on the inside,” said Bugler
“Community people know at Red Pheasant what's going on,” said Bugler, who said “we promote sobriety, we promote healing.”
He pointed to a major ceremony next week at Red Pheasant, which would attract people from around North America.
“We make it rain, we make it shine, people come there for healing,” he said of the event.
Baptiste also responded to criticism levelled at him from the protesters, who accused him of ordering them out of a duly convened band council meeting Monday.
The women were on the agenda to voice their concerns about issues on the reserve, but Baptiste said “they kept on yelling at the meeting and I told them kindly, if you ladies are going to be disruptive to the meeting then I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”
Baptiste also criticized the women's reaction after they left that meeting. The women headed to the band office, where they “chained the doors to the office and locked a bunch of people in here,” said Baptiste. “That's going a little overboard.”
The RCMP were called to the scene, but by that point the women had reconsidered and moved outside with plans to conduct a peaceful protest. They later told the Regional Optimist they wanted to obey the law, “unlike the current Chief.”
Baptiste painted the protesters as a small and always disgruntled group.
“They're never happy. It seems like it doesn't matter which chief and council are in,” he said.
Outside the band office, the female protesters dismissed the accusations and rejected claims that they didn't belong to Red Pheasant First Nation.
Some of the protesters even said they initially supported Baptiste, but changed their minds after seeing him in office.
While they welcomed a band meeting, they said the actions did not go far enough and pledged to continue their protest outside the band office.
The women do have at least one supporter on council. One band councillor, Sandra Arias, said the women have her “100 percent support.”
Arias told the Regional Optimist there “needs to be a whole restructuring” at the First Nation, and said it “starts with the removal of Stewart Baptiste.”
She called women the “pillars of the community” and deserving of respect, and expects the protest to continue until Baptiste is removed from office.
“I don't think they're going to back down until it happens,” she said.