Aboriginal man found not guilty of sex offence but banished from home

Hopkins is originally from Heiltsuk First Nation, a community located in Bella Bella on B.C.’s Northwest Coast. He has not been allowed to return home in 13 years.

Robert Hopkins hopes to return to his community, despite the obstacles

Heiltsuk First Nation member Robert Hopkins spends time by the Quesnel River because it reminds him of his home in Bella Bella, B.C., where he was banished in 2003. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton/CBC)

On an overcast drizzling Saturday afternoon in Quesnel, B.C., Robert Hopkins peers outside the rain-speckled window of the shelter where he's staying.

"I spend time around the river because it's quiet there," he says, motioning to the river a block away. "It reminds me of Bella Bella because there are eagles around here."

Hopkins, 58, is originally from Heiltsuk First Nation, a community located in Bella Bella on B.C.'s Northwest Coast. He remembers fishing with an uncle and making pies with his aunt. He remembers the feel and smell of the ocean. But memories of Bella Bella are all Hopkins has. He has not been allowed to return home in 13 years.

In 2003, Hopkins was charged with sexual assault. Despite being cleared of the charge a year later, he has been banished from Bella Bella by the band council.

"It hurt, it still hurts, some parts of the time. [But] banned means banned. You're not allowed back home," Hopkins said.

Hopkins bounced around after his court case. He lived with a sister in Mission for a year, then Abbotsford for 12 years before settling in Quesnel. He's not been in trouble with the law since, he says. He sometimes stays in the local homeless shelter, sometimes with friends. When he's not working as a mover, he helps at the shelter and spends the rest of his day walking around town. Wherever he's lived, he always thinks of home.

"I just want to get back to Bella Bella. Go back to my roots, my canoes and do what I used to do," Hopkins said.

Banished by band council

Hopkins was charged in 2003 with one count of sexual assault for a 2001 incident in Bella Bella, according to a B.C. Supreme Court indictment. The charge involved a young person, not a minor, Hopkins said. In 2004, he was found not guilty but, according to Hopkins, a document was submitted in court that banned him from returning home.

He did not attempt to return until some years later, when an aunt in Bella Bella whom he was close to died. Hopkins tried to go to her funeral but was taken into custody by the RCMP.

"We had to visit Robert in jail. They escorted him to see her body in the morgue then escorted him out of Bella Bella," says Dora Hopkins, Robert's sister. She has only seen him twice in nine years.
Robert Hopkins ponders where he will live and whether he will die away from home. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton/CBC)

Heiltisuk chief councillor Marilyn Slett confirmed in an email that the Heitsuk Tribal Council revoked Hopkins' residency in 2004 using an Indian band bylaw. The bylaw allows the council to revoke residency on Indian land for reasons including "arrears of taxes, contravention of limited stay conditions, illegal conduct, or where there is detriment to the advancement of the Band or to the wellbeing of other Band members."

Hopkins said he did not have legal representation during this process.

Slett declined to discuss particulars of Hopkins' case, citing confidentiality and legal reasons.

Bella Bella RCMP staff Sgt. Milo Ramsey confirmed the Heiltsuk banned Hopkins via a band bylaw, but he declined further comment, referring questions to RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

Officials from the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said the decision to banish members is up to the band council and not its responsibility.

"First Nations governments are responsible for, and make decisions on, day-to-day issues in their communities, such as this. For this reason, we would not be made aware that a First Nation has made a decision related to banishment," an email noted.

Violation of traditional laws

Although Hopkins has not been convicted of an offence on the reserve or since that time, the allegation tainted his relationship with the band. Historically, Aboriginal communities considered sex offences to be among the most serious crimes that could be committed.

George Harris, an elder with the Stz'uminus First Nation on central Vancouver Island, says sex offences violate the traditional law of his people. Under this law, known as Snuy-ulth, men were considered protectors of all women because women were life-givers.

"We have stories of people who were banished for sexually abusing women, and it was an offence even punishable by death," Harris said.

Banishment is still used, Harris added.

"In my village about 15 years ago, we had one man who was banished for 10 to 12 months."

Nowhere else to go

Exactly how many people are banished from their First Nations is difficult to determine. Officials from Corrections Canada and the B.C. Corrections Branch say they don't know, although Corrections Canada has staff who assist such offenders.
Circle of Eagles Lodge executive director Jerry Adams says sex offenders can contribute to their First Nations by recounting their experiences to community members as a warning. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton/CBC)

Circle of Eagles Lodge, a halfway house in Vancouver for Aboriginal men released from prison, holds 17 residents. Chief Executive Officer Jerry Adams said that between two and 10 residents are sex offenders at any given time, and many are banned from returning home when they're finished serving parole.

"About 80 per cent, maybe more, return to the Lower Mainland and stay here. That's quite high," Adams said. "They're stuck in Vancouver. They've got nowhere else to go."

Waiting for an answer

Meanwhile, Robert Hopkins ponders not so much what his future will be, but where he'll get to live it.

He says that thinking about how things used to be makes him feel low, even suicidal sometimes. But he says that what gets him through those times is the thought of getting home, even if others feel it best if he didn't.

"My sister said, 'There's nothing up there for you. There's no work for you.' I don't care, that's my home. I'm coming home one day," he says.

That's the only other reason I can go home, is in a pine box. I don't want to go home in a pine box.- Robert Hopkins

Hopkins says his sister Dora has been advocating for his return to Bella Bella with the tribe's band council, but there's been no decision.

So he waits to return home, one way or the other.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel. But the question is will that light stay on, or will I just stay here in Quesnel and die," he said.

"That's the only other reason I can go home, is in a pine box. I don't want to go home in a pine box."


Wawmeesh George Hamilton is an award winning journalist/photographer and a three-time BC-Yukon Community Newspaper Association award winner. He has garnered three Canadian Community Newspaper Association awards and was a 2018 Webster Award nominee. He graduated in 2016 with an MA from the UBC graduate school of journalism. He is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. @Wawmeesh