The history of the Skownan First Nation in Manitoba is a proud one but is also marked by conflict. Originally the Waterhen First Nation, the community became divided when a group of dissidents accused the band’s government of wide-scale corruption.
In 1996, the dissidents leader, Gordon Catcheway, had been trying unsuccessfully to remove Chief Harvey Nepinak from office for many years. Local legend has it that the bad blood between the Catcheway and Nepinak families dated back over 100 years.
On April 22, a barricade was erected on a road at the south end of the reserve.
The RCMP were called in and what started as a small protest became a tense month-long standoff that generated national headlines and forced families from their homes.
The dissidents aided by members of the Manitoba Warriors, —an Aboriginal street gang with a reputation for violence and criminal activity— took control of the reserve, forcing the Chief and his supporters to flee the community.
Two houses, including the one assigned to the Chief, burned to the ground in the standoff’s early stages.
The dissidents said the dispute was about accountability issues and demanded a separate reserve of their own.
The standoff ended on May 19, when police on morning patrol noticed that the barricade, usually defended by armed dissidents, was unmanned.
They seized the opportunity to secure the 20-metre-long structure, built with old cars, tractors and wagons. The 100-man tactical unit then moved cautiously into the community, but met little resistance. No shots were fired and no injuries were reported.
By evening the dissidents along with their leader had been taken into custody.
The sudden end to the standoff came at a time when tensions between reserve dissidents and police had escalated. Two days earlier Catcheway backed away from a tentative agreement to end the standoff.
A variety of prominent people met with the dissidents during the month hoping to negotiate an end to the conflict. They included an associate chief provincial court judge, two MLAs, a Pentecostal minister, a reserve Elder and the mayor of a nearby community.
Some 300 members —roughly half the reserve’s population at the time— left for Zelena Village, in the wake of the standoff as a result of the ensuing court proceedings, violence and harassment directed against them by supporters of the Chief.
The dissidents lost their homes, their jobs (if they had one) and most of their possessions, not to mention the right to live in the community in which they had spent their lives. Many had their houses burned and their possession seized.
Some moved on to other parts of the province.
The band changed its name from Waterhen to the Skownan—an Ojibway word meaning “a turning point in the land.”
Sixteen dissidents were later found guilty of mischief for their part in the uprising. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ordered new trials. The Crown later stayed the charges, saying prosecution of the accused was no longer in the public interest.
Manitoba’s perspective to this situation has remained unresolved.
In the past, INAC spokesman Jeff Solmundson said that to create a new reserve, the dissident families need the blessing of the current chief and council. No new land will be allotted for a new reserve — it has to be transferred from existing reserve land.
The department still considers it an internal governance dispute.