Pubdate: Wed, 1 Dec 2004 Source: Windspeaker (Canada) Copyright: 2005 Windspeaker Contact: http://www.mapinc.org/media/3632 Website: http://www.ammsa.com/windspeaker/ Author: Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Penticton, B.C. OKANAGAN CHIEFS DECLARE WAR ON DRUGS The seven chiefs of the Okanagan Nation are not willing to watch more of their young citizens die tragically. A week after three young men were killed and three others injured on the Penticton Indian Band's reserve in a dispute over drugs, the chiefs of the seven southern British Columbia Interior communities met in Kelowna to discuss the tragedy. On Nov. 10, they issued a public statement titled, "Confronting the problems of drug use and trafficking in our communities." The chiefs are taking action on a number of fronts to crack down on criminal activity in their communities. More and better policing and public education about the dangers of using or selling drugs top their list of priorities. Criminal activity on reserves is a matter that has been the subject of a lot of whispering in recent years. The Nov. 10 announcement was the first major public acknowledgement of what many chiefs across the country agree is becoming a major problem. Drug use on reserves is growing dramatically and crime organizations are increasingly seeing reserves as safe places to do business. A number of sources told this publication that the Hell's Angels biker gang is active in the Kelowna area and on the surrounding reserves. In its 2004 annual report on organized crime, Criminal Intelligence Service Canada said the "Hell's Angels remains the largest and most powerful outlaw motorcycle gang in Canada." The report also states that "Aboriginal-based street gangs and criminal groups typically support and facilitate other organized crime groups, such as the Hell's Angels and Asian-based networks." Sources say investigations into the ownership of two helicopters seized after landing on the Penticton reserve after the shootings are pointing to organized criminal elements. Penticton Chief Stewart Phillip told Windspeaker that low levels of funding for fully functioning tribal police services have led to a situation where First Nation communities, including his own, have become havens for criminal activities. And with cutbacks to RCMP funding, the Mounties are stretched very thin. More than a dozen Penticton citizens received police training, but Phillip said that when they were hired by the RCMP they ended up being used in areas off reserve. His community has a volunteer tribal police force with one marked police car that was donated by the RCMP. "Because of the universal situation of poverty in all First Nation communities and the fact that the government of Canada and the provinces are unwilling to allocate the necessary resources to establish a national tribal police force, we have to endure the circumstances of having improperly policed communities," Phillip said. "First Nation communities have become attractive venues for organized crime to use as drug distribution networks." Phillip said his council has authorized raids on three sophisticated marijuana grow operations on Penticton Indian Band territory in recent months. But he said the fact that First Nation communities are tightly knit and inter-related makes it hard to get the evidence required to obtain search warrants. Provincial government cutbacks in services under Premier Gordon Campbell's government have stretched things to the point where Crown prosecutors will not approve prosecutions unless there is a very strong possibility of a conviction. And since First Nations are difficult places to police, they have fallen lower down on the list of priorities, Phillip said. "We're being told by law enforcement that the drug trade is so pervasive throughout the Interior at large that they don't have the resources to address the problems within our reserve communities," he said. "The RCMP drug section has a limited budget and they identify high priority targets that reflect large volumes, I presume. And we're being told that our community drug trade doesn't measure up. We can no longer accept that." Phillip said that all the leaders of the Okanagan Nations admitted on Nov. 10 that the shooting "could have happened in any one of our communities. These leaders are on public record making these statements. During the course of the meeting, they openly admitted that the drug problem was completely pervasive and was a huge concern in all of our communities. I think it's right across this country." Phillip said that he sees the drug trade as an underground economy. "And you find underground economies in, generally speaking, areas where there's economic depression," he said. Sources in Penticton say family based politics are making it difficult for chief and council to bring the drug situation under control. Phillip admitted that it's difficult and even traumatic to take hard-nosed enforcement action in small communities where most people are related either by blood or by marriage. But he would not discuss details. First Nations Summit task force member Grand Chief Edward John commended the Okanagan chiefs for committing to take on this difficult problem. "In B.C., it's a difficult problem and a very serious one as you can see from what happened. I don't think that Penticton is isolated. I think it's really the tip of the iceberg. I'm glad to see that they're taking a stance, saying that these matters need to be dealt with," he said. He also pointed to the problem of family relationships getting in the way of enforcement. "These communities aren't all that big so everybody's related to somebody else. The fact that the council stepped forward and said no-it's an important position that they've taken," he said. It's an increasingly important point. One chief, who wouldn't comment on the record, said that the biggest danger created when council members protect or choose not go after relatives who are involved in criminal activity is that eventually those people will run for and get elected to council. Once the criminal element infiltrates First Nation governments, the real challenge for law enforcement will begin and more grassroots people will be at risk of violence and intimidation. John said it was a tragedy that three young men lost their lives, but the chiefs were wise to use the shock and outrage of the moment as a tool to make their community members take a close look at the problem and decide to do something. "When that teachable moment occurs, and it's unfortunate that a number of people lost their lives, but you make sure you drive home the point and start putting into place the kind of strategies that are needed to combat these drug problems. They are serious," he said. John also believes that poor economic factors have made First Nations vulnerable to criminal activity. "The first step is to recognize there's a problem. The second thing is to say no to drugs. The third thing is to make sure that you can provide your community members with an alternative to this. If you have economic activity and people with jobs and a good degree of self-esteem, you've won the battle," he said.