POWELL RIVER, B.C. - A small group of native protesters used trucks and a car to physically block fellow members of a British Columbia First Nation from voting on a treaty with the provincial and federal governments over the weekend.
Clint Williams, chief of the Tla'amin First Nation, also known as the Sliammon, said between 200 and 250 people were expected to vote on the deal at the Salish Centre near Powell River, B.C., on Saturday.
But he said that vote must now be rescheduled, amidst charges by band leaders and even the provincial government that the protesters have derailed a fundamental democratic right and Canadian process.
Meantime, the protesters have issued a statement of their own, saying they are taking a stand against the treaty because they still have many unanswered questions.
"In the back of my head, you know, all I'm thinking is, I still woke up in Canada this morning. I woke up in Canada the day before," said Williams. "There's a lot of people that had their democratic rights trampled on. Just, I'm pretty frustrated."
The deal between the provincial and federal governments and First Nation has been nearly two decades in the making and would see the band of 1,000 people receive about 8,322 hectares of land, nearly $30 million over 10 years, self-governing powers, economic-development funding, resource revenue, forestry and fishing rights.
Williams said there was no guarantee of a yes or no vote Saturday, but members still wanted to see exactly in what direction the majority of voters wanted to head.
The vote was to be the last in a series of votes, and the polls were supposed to open between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., said Williams.
But hours before the polls opened, between 12 and 15 protesters showed up at the Salish Centre.
Williams said they used a truck to block the entrance to some offices and a car to block the entrance to the gymnasium. He said they also parked a truck on the building's northern side.
"Then there was people standing in front of one of the other entrances," he said.
While police were called to the site, they did nothing to ensure voters could cast their ballots, said Williams.
Identifying themselves as the Concerned Members of the Sliammon First Nation, the protesters issued a three-page document, outlining their grievances.
"We are here today to take a stand against the treaty process," the organization stated. "This process has had a very negative effect on the Sliammon people and more questions continue to arise."
The group raised questions on just who is allowed to enrol as a member in the band, saying some who have no blood ties to the band have been allowed to sign up to vote.
The group also alleged election and voting procedures have not been followed, and raised concerns that they have no fishing or water rights.
Only hours after the polls were scheduled to close, Mary Polak, B.C.'s minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, lambasted the protesters and even local authorities for taking "no conclusive actions."
"This is not a First Nations issue," she said in a statement, noting negotiations have been taking place since 1994. "This is about democracy. Voting is a fundamental right of every Canadian."
Polak said that in Canada self determination has and always will be obtained through the ballot box, not through intimidation.
Williams said while several public information sessions have already been held on the treaty, the band's ratification committee will sit down with the protesters.
No date has yet been set for another vote, but members will head back to the polling places in the "near future," he added.
"The remainder of the Sliammon people will vote on this final agreement, and we will find out what the true direction is of the Sliammon people," he said.
"Once that is determined, we'll pick up the pieces and move on from there. It's a shame that this happened, but we'll do the best to try to rebuild the community once this is behind us. We don't want to see families torn apart because of this."
— By Keven Drews in Vancouver