Occupation of the administration office at the Williams Lake Indian Band entered day two Wednesday with no quick resolution in sight.
Six men entered the office just after 8 a.m. Tuesday after they forced their way in and asked staff to leave as women staffers were opening the building for the day.
What followed next was an initially swift response from heavily armed members of the RCMP, who secured the perimeter around the building and communicated with the protestors and also with band councillors gathered at the community’s resource building across the street.
Later in the day, Acting Chief Heather McKenzie said they were shocked to discover the group had occupied the band office, which has forced the shut down of government activities and closure of the community’s nearby preschool and daycare until the matter is resolved.
“It is our understanding that this small group of dissidents is attempting to construe their actions as some form of political expression. We would emphatically assert that this is not a legitimate form of political expression,” McKenzie stated in a press release later Tuesday afternoon.
“Terrorizing staff and children, disrupting lawful government activities and causing Williams Lake Indian Band to suffer loss and damage is a form of terrorism, and not anything that council, or the vast majority of our members, can support or accept.”
Band council did what they could Tuesday to deal with the protesters, who posted videos from inside the office, such as attempting to make contact with them yesterday but they declined the offer.
April Thomas, an outspoken critic of the band council, was arrested by police that morning after crossing the RCMP perimeter.
Since then, however, the RCMP have taken a much more relaxed stance in the crisis, downgrading their involvement in the protest to that of peacekeeper, much to the dismay of band council.
“The RCMP are on site outside the band administration office doing nothing. The RCMP state that this is a ‘First Nations Community and Civil Issue’ and that they have absolved themselves of any further action,” council stated in a release issued Wednesday.
“Leaders of the Williams Lake Indian Band are extremely frustrated with the RCMP’s position which they feel is creating a ‘double standard,’ noting that if this type of criminal and illegal action occurred at any ‘off reserve’ site, in any community, the police would be taking a much different and more ‘action specific’ approach to an event of this magnitude.”
Council said as of Wednesday RCMP have been allowing individuals in and out of the building – with the majority of the individuals not even being members of the Williams Lake Indian Band community, having travelled to Williams Lake from other First Nations in BC to participate in the growing demonstration.
Council said while the occupation continues, the WLIB and its membership suffer both economically and emotionally and administration will be forced to seek a court injunction at a cost of $25,000 to remove the demonstrators.
Four of the six men who originally took over the building have been identified as Darcy Kobelt, Arnie Jack, Edward Razor Thomas and Ernie Archie. Two others remain unidentified.
Chief and council have been dealing with an increasingly active handful of community protesters in recent months, including in February when the treaty referendum vote was halted at Sugar Cane due to aggressive demonstrators who smashed a ballot box inside the Elizabeth Grouse Gymnasium.
Kobelt was arrested in relation to that incident and the community later narrowly voted in support of the chief and council to continue moving forward with the treaty process.
Everyone agrees, however, the tipping point came last week when council had Sugar Cane resident Sheldon Wycotte forcibly removed from his late grandfather’s home on the reserve.
WLIB maintain the decision to evict Wycotte came after lengthy due process and a failure to pay rent. For his part, Wycotte said he was targeted by band administration after refusing to attend a treatment centre and sign a tenancy agreement.
“There was a lot of outrage from the video of Sheldon getting dragged out of his house,” protestor Arnie Jack said from the window of the office Tuesday evening.
Jack said he and Darcy Kobelt occupied the administration office in a similar political protest in 1995 which lasted several days.
“None of the issues then have been resolved … the WLIB refuses to enact a procedural bylaw in this community,” Jack said, explaining he believes members need a bigger voice on a wide range of issues in the community.
When asked if occupying the office was the right way to go about addressing his concerns, Jack was quick to respond.
“It’s the only way left to go about it.”
Several community members, including respected elders, came by the office Tuesday evening to see the demonstration for themselves.
To the Tribune, some expressed their disapproval over the demonstration, while others voiced their support and said many community members were concerned over the handling of Wycotte’s eviction.
All the residents who took the time to talk said above anything else they didn’t want to see anyone get hurt.
It was believed that Chief Ann Louie was travelling back to the community from holidays to deal with the crisis.
School District 27 assistant superintendent of schools Harj Manhas said Wednesday the district will resume transportation service to the community during the protest since it has been deemed a peaceful demonstration, however, buses will only drop students off at the community bus stop on Grizzly Drive, located near Highway 97 at the start of the residential area.