Protest group enters second week of vigil seeking resignation of Sheguiandah chief

by Alicia McCutcheon

SHEGUIANDAH FIRST NATION—The Sheguiandah First Nation has often been a community divided with decades-long rifts among families splitting the community apart over various issues. Over the past week, motorists driving along Highway 6 will have noticed an ongoing protest encampment directly across from the Manitoulin Trading Post, indicating that the community is once again divided with some community members calling for the resignation of Chief Orville Aguonie.

The protestors are careful to point out that their demonstration is peaceful, with those taking part sharing the duties of carrying signs and placards while others spend the night in tipis and tents.

Councillors Derek Assiniwe and Kevin Mishibinijima, who comprise one half of the elected chief and council, are the spokespeople for the protest.

“It’s something that has been building up over time,” Derek Assiniwe told The Expositor, recalling the family feuds that had overtaken Sheguiandah since he was a child. “Families weren’t communicating and it wasn’t until recent events when things escalated to violence that the community began to come together and realize that issues needed to be addressed—lines of communication opened up.”

The recent events Mr. Assiniwe referred to are a rash of vandalism and assaults that took place earlier this month, starting with the community’s new fire truck having its windows broken and followed by the near-arson to Alleycat’s Variety—the convenience store owned by the chief and his wife Alison. Altercations ensued following these acts, resulting in two charges of assault against the chief.

Chief Aguonie admitted to the charges, but said he felt he would be fully vindicated of them when he has his day in court.

When asked about a similar protest during the term of Georgina Thomson, of which he was also a part, Mr. Assiniwe said while the people in power were different, the issues were the same.

“Some people say we need a new chief, but I say it’s deeper than that,” he added, noting that some people, including him, have called for the chief’s resignation. “People who were once against one another are now protesting side by side. On a positive note, it’s brought the community together. People feel that Orville isn’t the best choice for the community right now.”

Mr. Assiniwe explained that the primary reason in setting up the protest line was to call for a meeting of chief and council with the community to discuss drugs and alcohol in Sheguiandah, the rash of vandalism and assaults, as well as decisions made by the chief and his behaviour—the charges of assault.

He said a letter went out to the community via Canada Post, asking for residents to attend a meeting at the roundhouse.

“We assembled there, a family prepared soup and bannock for everyone, but the chief and Jack Ago-Neh (Sheguiandah’s third councillor) didn’t show up,” Mr. Assiniwe said, adding that frequent cancelled council meetings are also of concern to himself and Councillor Kevin Mishibinijima. “The meeting was planned as a respectful gesture and the roundhouse was chosen because it was symbolic of a traditional gathering place.”

Following the failed meeting at the roundhouse, the group moved to the powwow grounds and began to talk. “We sat and discussed the issues and potential solutions—we talked for three hours,” he added, explaining that it was here that the decision of holding a peaceful protest was made.

For his part, Chief Aguonie said that there have been those in the community who didn’t want to see him elected this term—the same people he said can be seen on the protest line—and don’t agree with some of the community’s new policies.

“We pushed through a housing policy when I was first elected and we now have an aggressive arrears policy,” the chief explained. “Now Ontario Works sends its rent cheques directly to the band office and band employees have their rent taken directly from their paycheques. This money goes to pay down the mortgage the community holds with Canada Mortgage and Housing. “Before,” Chief Aguonie said, “Sheg was running a deficit because people weren’t paying their rent and mortgage payments were coming right out of band money. This has been going on so long that people think that’s how it’s supposed to be.” There is currently $69,000 in rent arrears.

[map z=”13″ maptype=”HYBRID” address=”Sheguiandah, Ontario”]“What it boils down to is I put an end to the gravy train, bringing structure where there was no structure,” Chief Aguonie added. “I run a tight ship and I guess some people would call that a dictatorship.”

“I feel that if the community was going to continue in the direction it was going, someone was going to end up critically injured,” Mr. Assiniwe said, defending the protest and speaking of the tone of the reserve. “The people said enough was enough. They were going to start calling the shots and rightly so—they elected the chief and council so they should have this right.”

Both protesting councillors noted their concern with the chief and his other role as Sheguiandah First Nation CEO. “The chief’s role is spokesperson and advocate for the community, not a micromanager of band affairs,” Mr. Assiniwe added.

“We signed an oath that all decisions would be made together, but we would hear about decisions being made after the fact,” Mr. Mishibinijima explained.

The chief explained that there are two parts to the running of a First Nation: governance and administration and that he is involved in both roles, as chief and CEO.

“I don’t try and micromanage, but at the end of the day, if a tough decision has to be made, I make it,” the chief explained. “Council thinks they have more authority than they do. Council’s job is to develop policies and procedures,” he added, noting that he believes there is some confusion about roles and responsibilities, believing that the community should be made more aware too.

Mr. Assiniwe, Mr. Mishibinijima, Mr. Ago-Neh, Chief Aguonie and members of the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin (UCCM) Anishnaabe Police did meet on Friday morning, with the two concerned councillors requesting a meeting with community members. The chief told them that he would agree to a meeting, but with band members only.

“We get our mandate from the band members who have a vested interested in what goes on in our community,” the chief responded. “At the end of the day, it’s the band members that I am accountable to. We can’t just go to other reserves and have a say in what goes on there. I have agreed to meet with them,” Chief Aguonie reiterated. “My door has always been open—I’ve always stressed that. There are misconceptions and outright lies circulating,” he said, noting Facebook as a major cause of trouble in the community.

The chief explained that he has been in contact with the Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) for advice on the matter, with their recommendations including holding a meeting led by a respected Sheguiandah First Nation elder both sides can agree on, and then moving on to a second step: a meeting with a third party mediator from UOI, who would take notes from both sides, make observations then file a report containing suggestions for arbitration.

While it looked hopeful that a resolution could be found, the two councillors said their hopes were dashed Saturday morning, when the chief, his wife, Mr. Ago-Neh and another man appeared at the elders’ centre, which was being used by the protestors for shelter, and cut off power, telephone and water services.

Chief Aguonie agreed that he had “secured the elders’ building” Saturday morning, noting that a window had been broken. This came after elders in the community reported to the chief their displeasure with its usage.

“The building is for the elders—it’s not some flop house,” he said. “The protestors have signs up calling it elder abuse. How ironic when they’ve taken over the building, making it so the elders can’t use it. People are too scared to get their mail and the youth centre has been closed because of the protest too.” (Both buildings are located close to where the protest is taking place.)

“He won’t address the community, but will show up to shut off the power,” Mr. Assiniwe continued. “We had hopes that with him seeing this assembly, it would be just reason for him to meet with us, but we’re now going on day five,” he said Saturday. “At the beginning of this protest there was faith that things could be fixed, but now his resignation is the only solution.”

“I told them at the meeting on Friday that I will not resign, nor will I be intimidated or bullied,” the chief responded in an interview Monday afternoon this week. “I also plan to run again in the next election.”

Mr. Assiniwe said fear is widespread in the community, with some members wishing to share their support but only under the cover of darkness for fear of retribution. In fact, some of the protestors have taken turns each night from sunset to sunrise, patrolling the community’s streets. “We realize that the police are spread pretty thin,” he said.

Mr. Assiniwe said he and Mr. Mishibinijima have been in contact with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada about the situation, but have had a less then helpful response. The protestors have, however, had support from the Wikwemikong grannies and other communities via telephone, emails and Facebook. Mr. Mishibinijima added that a blanket dance was held at the Naughton powwow to raise money for protest supplies.

“We mean business and this community’s tired and wants their home back,” Mr. Mishibinijima said. “We have to look after our youth—our future leaders. I’m proud of this community, not wanting to bash the chief or his family, just a peaceful protest. Every day we’re stronger.”

“This is not an attack on Orville as a person, but bringing the well-being of our community to light,” Mr. Assiniwe added.

“The ball is in their court,” Chief Aguonie responded to The Expositor on all claims made against him. “I run a transparent, accountable First Nation and I can answer any questions community members may have.” The chief said he would be holding an information session, hopefully this week, and band members could expect information sheets, including financial statements, in their mailboxes.

The chief said he hopes the council can work together once the protest ends, or at least be civil. “You don’t have to be friends to be friendly,” he said.

As of presstime Monday, the protestors were still maintaining a 24-hour vigil on Highway 6, as they had been since last Tuesday.