Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Roseau River has two chiefs, no cash to run reserve

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For a month now, the only First Nation in Manitoba with two chiefs and two councils has been gripped in a cash freeze -- no bank will recognize either administration and lucrative revenue accounts are frozen solid.

Terry Nelson said the political instability is scaring off investors. He said five people to date at the First Nation's two gas bars have lost their jobs since the cash taps turned off.

Ken Henry said eight people, including himself, have been working for free because the band can't write cheques.

Both men insist they are the legitimate chief of Roseau River.

The power schism is the result of the First Nation's custom council, which sets election dates and can remove a chief from power. Long at odds with Nelson, it removed him as chief this fall and called a new election, which Henry won -- but Nelson challenged the council's authority.

Both chiefs admit the banks, and even Aboriginal and Northern Development Canada -- the new name for the former Indian Affairs Canada -- refuse to recognize there is a chief at all.

At this point, the indebted First Nation on the border with the United States has only one thing going for it: Basic services are in the hands of a third-party manager, otherwise the school and social services might be cut off, too.

That's not to say those areas of government are problem-free. For three days last week, the school was closed after a failed fire inspection. Classes for kindergarten to Grade 8 opened again Monday.

Nelson said $8 million is frozen from an $80-million settlement to compensate the First Nation for an illegal surrender of reserve land in 1903. That money, earmarked for housing under a complex trust settlement, sits out of reach in a Bank of Montreal account.

It includes a $6-million line of credit with $2 million in interest, earned in 2011. On April 1, 2012, the account will be richer by another $2 million in annual interest, Nelson said.

Nelson said he's convinced the rival faction unseated his administration to get access to those millions in interest, an accusation that makes the new chief bristle with indignation.

"I wouldn't have thrown my name in the election if I'd felt there was something wrong with this custom council," Henry countered.

He said the business of government is shut down.

"We've been frozen, all of our accounts, and we can't perform our day-to-day business. It's a dire situation," Henry said.

The band government depends on tobacco-tax rebates paid to the First Nation from the province every month. That amount, $187,000, is supposed to be split 50/50 between the band and its government. It pays support services and salaries for the chief, four council members and honorariums for 21 members of the First Nation's custom council.

The community has been polarized for years by rival power factions, even resulting in a protracted court battle.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2011 A7

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