Community leaders charged with bringing liquor to troubled First Nation

A former chief and an addiction worker are facing liquor offences and a band councillor was convicted in May of a similar charge on the troubled Pauingassi First Nation, which made national headlines last week when a six-year-old boy was reportedly bullied to death.

A former chief and an addiction worker are facing liquor offences and a band councillor was convicted in May of a similar charge on the troubled Pauingassi First Nation, which made national headlines last week when a six-year-old boy was reportedly bullied to death.

The charges, a former resident says, focus attention on one of the dry community's biggest problems: Bootlegging.

OnMay 16, Coun. Robert Owens was convicted of illegally transporting between 60 and 80 bottles of whiskey to the reserve and was was fined about $1,000.He continues to hold his council seat.

Several weeks ago,former chief Joe Owen, who now holds a senior position with the band, was caught with about a dozen bottles, police said. He said the booze was for his personal use.

As well, addictions worker Nancy Keeperwas caught with more than 160 bottles of whiskey a few weeks ago, RCMP told CBC News this week. She said the liquor was for a party she was planning for about 14 friends to celebrate victory at a baseball tournament.

Both have been charged with illegally transporting liquor to the isolated, fly-in reserve, located about 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Under provincial law, it's illegal to bring alcohol to a dry community. But bootlegging causes huge problems on the reserve, saidEdna Nabess, who recently moved away from the community.

It'sa lucrative business— a bottle ofwhiskey that sells for $20 in any Manitoba liquor store sells foras much as$100 on the reserve— and after buying the illegal booze,Nabess said, there'slittle left over for necessities.

"People know who's bootlegging," she said. "Some even have vehicles and deliver to people's houses. Then people get drunk, they have no food, they neglect their children because they're drinking. Then they sober up… and start all over again when some other money's coming in."

Althoughthe problems with alcoholism and bootlegging are widely acknowledged, Nabess said, some on the reserve are reluctant to raise the issue.

"People think it's OK. They know it's wrong, but what are they going to say? Because these are the leaders," she said.

"Even the young people— one day, when I said something about 'Listen to the elders,' they laughed and they said, 'What elders? …They show us how to drink.' So what are they, going to learn to be a bootlegger, too? Everybody can see what's going on."

Nabess said council should fire Owens. "There's no leadership. None at all. No leadership," she said.

Sidelined bylaw would have tightened rules

Owen,now lands co-ordinator for the reserve, admitted he had about a dozen bottles of whiskey, but said they were for his own use, not forsale.

He agreed that council should be tougher on bootleggers— though he said that's not the answer to the drinking problems that plague the reserve.

He said the previous council had prepared a bylaw that cracked down on bootlegging, but it was never implemented by this council. If it had been in effect, Owen said, Owens would have been fired.

"He should have been. If the people were to implement those and bring forth those guidelines and policies, he should have been. They don't give a shit about the policy or whatever."

Owens did not return calls from CBC News.

Difficult to catch: RCMP

RCMP say they make arrests for bootleggingbut it's difficult to catch the culprits, since local residents know the land and waterways around the isolated reserve better than they do.

"We have to boat into the community of Pauingassi, which takes time. The float planes are landing either in the community right up to the dock, or they're landing in remote locations and being met by boat," said Sgt. Jack Raffle, based in Grand Rapids, near Pauingassi.

"[Shipments] arebrought in by skidoo in the winter and by vehicle when the winter road is in, so logistically it's very difficult to be there."

Chief Harold Crow acknowledged that bootlegging is a serious problem and said he was aware of the charge, but not the conviction, until Thursday when he was contacted by CBC.

He couldn't take job action when the councillor was charged, Crow said, because he had to presume the man was innocent.

Now that he's been convicted, Crow plans to consult with police, his tribal council and people on the First Nation to see how they want to handle the situation.

Crow said he cannot fire a band councillor convicted of a crime without a bylaw allowing him to do so. He intends to resurrect the previous council's bylaw that tightens the rules on the matter.

More meetings planned

The chief has also met with RCMP and officials from the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission, and he's been trying to meet with local air carriers to discuss ways to address the problems created by illegal booze on Pauingassi and neighbouring Little Grand Rapids.

"We're so overwhelmed with the overflow of alcohol going to the First Nations, Little Grand and Pauingassi, it's just, all kinds of unnecessary, false and violent situations were occurring," he said."People are dying from alcohol. A lot of unnecessary people are getting beat up and getting killed by alcohol."

Further meetings are planned with the same officials, and Crow has invited representatives of Health Canada and Indian Affairs to join them.

Problems with substance abuse on the reserve returned to the spotlight on the reserve in the wake of the drowning death last week of six-year-old Adam Keeper. Police believe three other children between the ages of seven and nine were responsible for the boy's death.

The incident was the third violent death on the reserve in the past 18 months, all involving suspects who were minors.

Over the past year, the community spent thousands on treatment, recreational and cultural programs in an attempt to control an epidemic of gas sniffing once thought to affect half of the reserve's children.