Defamation suit exposes huge rift in Burns Lake band
Members of a First Nations community are being sued for defamation by their chief, Albert Gerow, husband of former B.C. NDP leader Carole James.
According to court documents filed in response by three of the defendants, the lawsuit is meant to “stifle” calls for accountability and transparency of actions by the leadership of the Burns Lake band.
The defendants assert that band leaders “have a duty to take direction from the members and to seek their free, prior and informed consent before entering into band business on their behalf, especially when major agreements are being contemplated, such as but not limited to, Enbridge pipeline deals”.
The court papers, responses to civil claim, were filed by band councillor Ronald Charlie, his Ontario-based lawyer, Charlene Desrochers (both filed together on September 4, 2013), and Charlie’s friend John Phair (filed on September 6, 2013). Desrochers and Phair do not belong to the Burns Lake band but are among the 13 named and unnamed defendants in the case.
Gerow, band councillor Nicholas Daniel George, and former councillor Wesley Sam are the plaintiffs in the case.
In a civil claim filed before the B.C. Supreme Court on August 14, 2013, the plaintiffs cite 16 instances of “false, malicious and defamatory” statements against them. The charges have yet to be proven in court.
The statements include one made in November 2012 by former band councillor Ryan Tibbetts in connection with the Enbridge pipeline.
Tibbetts allegedly stated on a video-sharing website: “Our Chief and Council has not met with any of our Band Members for 18 months. We’ve had no meetings or information of any kind. Basically the Chief and Council are dealing in a cloak of secrecy. So far as Enbridge is concerned, I don’t have a clue, they may have signed something, they may not have. I don’t know.”
The plaintiffs argue that this was defamatory to Gerow and George because it’s meant to be understood that they have hidden information from the band.
Another of the statements is a posting on the Facebook page “Respect Project”, an account maintained by members of the northern B.C. Native community. It refers to the deployment of RCMP officers when Burns Lake band members occupied the band’s office from March 25 to April 7, 2013.
A post attributed to Tibbetts’s daughter Catherine Holmes and her husband, Casey, partly refers to James, a former provincial New Democrat leader currently in her third term as MLA for Victoria–Beacon Hill: “…the chief is married to a NDP leader…how else do you think he was able to round up so much cops???”.
In the civil claim, the plaintiffs argue that the Facebook page is malicious because it can be construed from these words that Gerow “used his wife’s political influence to control the RCMP”.
Gerow, who is in his second term as Burns Lake band chief, is a former RCMP officer.
In their responses to the civil claim, the three defendants also note the involvement of RCMP officers in the band’s affairs.
According to them, Gerow and George have “called the RCMP, on more than one occasion, to attend Burns Lake Band to deal with the on-reserve members, including the defendant, Ron Charlie, whenever the Defendant, Ron Charlie, and other on-reserve members try to hold the Plaintiffs accountable for their actions as Chief and Council of Burns Lake Band”.
“There has never been an instance of violence on the part of the Defendant Ron Charlie and on-reserve band members,” the defendants state.
Gerow, George, and Charlie make up the three-member council of the Burns Lake band, a community of more than 100 on-reserve and off-reserve members.
In their joint response filed on September 4, Charlie and Desrochers note that Gerow and George “have formed a ‘tag team’ against the Defendant, Ron Charlie with respect to decision-making regarding all band affairs”.
In that document, they also contend that Desrochers was “maliciously added” as a defendant to “stifle the Defendant Ron Charlie’s freedom of expression in his calls for accountability and transparency from elected officials, the Plaintiffs Chief Albert Gerow and Councillor Nicholas Dan George.”
“By attempting to neutralize their lawyer, Defendant, Charlene Desrochers, they are denying the Defendant, Ronald Charlie, the right to counsel, which is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
In their civil claim, the plaintiffs claim that the lawyer defamed Gerow and George in a May 28, 2013, letter that refers to Gerow and George’s “dictatorship of the Burns Lake Band”.
According to Gerow and George, the letter is understood to mean that they have “breached the democratic principles of governance”.
The response by Charlie and Desrochers notes that the lawyer’s May 28 letter was addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was a follow-up to a May 23, 2013, letter by Charlie and on-reserve members that constituted “an official request to separate from Chief Albert Gerow and Councilor Nicholas Dan George pursuant to the Indian Act”.
The earlier letter also included “an official protest to the additions to the members who were added to the Burns Lake Band membership list without consent or knowledge of the on-reserve members”.
“The May 28, 2013 letter was addressed to the Prime Minister because officials from Aboriginal Affairs refused to intervene in the governance dispute at Burns Lake Band,” the response states. “The Burns Lake Band on-reserve members were seeking recourse with the Prime Minister who oversees the Indian Act and ultimately, controls the actions of Indian Act Chief and Councils through the Indian Act.”
In his September 6, 2013, response to the civil claim, Phair states that he was included in the lawsuit “in retaliation because he is friends with the Defendant, Ron Charlie”.
Phair also notes: “The defendant, Ron Charlie, including all members of the Burns Lake Band have a right to hold the Plaintiffs, Albert Gerow, Nicholas Dan George, and Wesley Sam, all Chief and Council members, accountable without retaliation, such as defamation lawsuits.”
On September 11, 2013, Gerow, George, and Sam replied to the responses by Charlie, Desrochers, and Phair, which the plaintiffs describe as being “replete with irrelevant, incorrect and untrue allegations of fact”.
They also state that the responses to their civil claim “repeat defamatory statements made by the Defendants”.
According to court papers filed by Charlie, Desrochers, and Phair, Gerow has “never lived on reserve in Burns Lake Band”. The civil claim states that Gerow “resides in Burns Lake”.
None of the charges or counterclaims set out in any of the documents cited above have been proven in court.