Caucasian woman asked to run for chief of Burns Lake Band
Northern B.C.’s Burns Lake Band may write a new chapter in Canada’s aboriginal history by electing as chief a Caucasian woman.
Many on-reserve members are urging Pauline Goertzen to run for the post next month, according to band councillor Ron Charlie.
“The community respects her, and the community thinks that she’ll be a great leader,” Charlie told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview on January 13.
A by-election will be held on February 11 following band chief Albert Gerow’s resignation before the end of his two-year term.
Gerow, husband of former B.C. NDP leader Carole James, quit effective December 31 last year to take a job with TransCanada Pipelines Limited, the company that wants to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta to the U.S.
As chief, Gerow also endorsed exploration work for the Northern Gateway pipeline, an Enbridge Inc. project that will carry Alberta’s diluted bitumen to B.C.’s coast and is opposed by his wife’s political party.
James’s spouse has sued Charlie and other members of the Native band in a defamation case that has yet to be tried in court.
Goertzen is a lifelong resident of Burns Lake, the town outside the reserve. According to her, she has worked with the band and other First Nations communities in the areas of community development and diversity since she was 20.
She also confirmed that she has been asked to run for band chief.
“I look at it not so much leading but serving,” Goertzen told the Straight by phone.
She said she has yet to make a definite decision. “But I think I am, going forward,” she added.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada will hold a nomination meeting on Wednesday evening (January 15). A new chief will serve out the remainder of Gerow’s unfinished two-year term, until October this year.
Although Goertzen is neither a band member nor a registered aboriginal, she noted that the Indian Act allows anyone to be nominated for chief.
Goertzen said she considers that a “loophole” in the legislation, and being able to highlight that and the condition of the community is one of the reasons why she is considering accepting a nomination if she gets one on January 15.
Asked about her thoughts on a Caucasian woman becoming chief of a Native band, she focused on upcoming tasks.
“I have a very specific mandate from the community to undertake in the coming eight months,” Goertzen said.
One of those tasks is to look into the “various industrial agreements” entered into by the Gerow administration. On-reserve members have been demanding information on deals made on behalf of the band with companies planning to build oil and gas pipelines.
Another is an examination of the community’s financial affairs, she said.
Goertzen is also keen on starting programs at the band’s Gathering Place, a large but underutilized community facility.
A community and land-use report released in May 2013 and updated last November by a consortium of consultants describes a divided community.
“The Band is currently struggling with structural problems that have caused opposition among members on environmental, social, political, cultural, and philosophical issues,” the report notes. “This is evidenced by ongoing acts of protest by on-reserve Band members and responses by the Band Council. Community-owned and community-member economic development cannot be easily prescribed or achieved unless measures are undertaken to ensure all Band members can secure needed information so they can participate fairly and openly.”
The consultants also state: “Ways need to be found so that members of the Band Council and staff have and are seen to have legitimate authority to act on behalf of all Band members.”
They likewise note that “unless some form of reconciliation of the divisions within the membership of the Burns Lake Band is reached, division of the Burns Lake Band into two new bands may be the final outcome.”
Former band councillor Ryan Tibbetts is a critic of Gerow and is one of those being sued by the former chief.
As the band prepared to pick a new chief, Tibbetts told the Straight by phone: “We’re hoping whoever gets elected as chief that there would be more…transparency, there would be accountability, there would be open communication.”