Supporters comfort Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Elder John Tom Sr. of Opitsaht as he emotionally lays out his concerns about where his Nation is headed to TFN Chief Councillor Elmer Frank during a protest held outside the Tla-o-qui-aht Band Office on Monday. (Andrew Bailey - Photo)

Supporters comfort Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Elder John Tom Sr. of Opitsaht as he emotionally lays out his concerns about where his Nation is headed to TFN Chief Councillor Elmer Frank during a protest held outside the Tla-o-qui-aht Band Office on Monday. (Andrew Bailey - Photo)

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation demands transparency from leadership

“Right now there’s a lot of heartache.”

Compassion, communication and respect were three key themes of a peaceful protest held outside the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s administration office Monday morning.

About 30 TFN members filled the office’s parking lot to express concerns and the Nation’s Chief Councillor Elmer Frank was there to hear them.

“I really feel that it’s important to hear everyone’s concerns and hear them in a respectful manner,” Frank said as the event got underway at 8:30 a.m. “You all have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed and, ultimately, that’s what I’m here for, to hear those concerns.”

Tla-o-qui-aht member Hjalmer Wenstob spoke on behalf of the protestors.

“We’re here for a conversation today. A respectful conversation. We’re not here one against the other, we’re here to come together again,” he said. “We want to leave here with hands being shook and hugs being given so we can come together again like we have before.”

He said he had met with TFN members the night before and felt “some frustration in people’s hearts,”

“Right now there’s a lot of heartache. There’s feelings of being left behind and a feeling of losing control. Feelings that we’re not together,” he said. “We’re family here. That’s why we’re not here with anger. We’re not here to argue and fight. We’re here just to speak with each other and come together again.”

He said a big concern members have is that they don’t feel they have an opportunity to speak with their leadership, particularly in Opitsaht, where some members feel they are being left behind.

“There is a big lack of communication,” he said. “The biggest thing is that people want a space to speak with their leadership again. They want band meetings. They want community meetings. They want those to be in Opitsaht as much as they are on this side. They really want to come together again…It’s not against our leadership. We miss them being here and hearing our voices.”

Along with increased communication with leadership, the most common concerns raised during the event were around access to funding for medical costs and patient travel as well as available and suitable housing.

“We are here today to make things right, to come back together, to be a proud Nation as we once were,” said TFN member Corinne Ortiz-Castro, who helped organize the protest. “We are begging you to sit down [and] to really listen to our people and come up with a long-term plan to correct this.”

She said members face many social issues that the Nation must work together to solve.

“I’ve heard countless personal stories of struggle from our people…I’m not here to attack or point fingers. I’m here to find solutions for our Nation’s needs,” she said. “We are struggling financially, emotionally, mentally and spiritually as people.”

She hoped the protest would prompt the Nation’s leadership to enact changes.

“This administration isn’t working for us. Neither is the Chief or Council, “she said. “We are hoping, from this, that you will honestly and seriously sit down with everybody, because we are all one and we want that proven.”

Chief Councillor Elmer Frank acknowledged funding for patient travel can be a slow process, but said it is done on a reimbursement basis guided by the federal government as the Nation’s members have consistently opposed signing a treaty agreement.

“That [treaty] was a clean mechanism to be able to self-govern and make our own laws. Right now, we don’t have that ability,” he said.

He said concerns over housing issues had been heard and that the Nation is preparing over $1 million worth of renovations.

“In the next month, you’re going to start seeing $1.9 million of renovations that will be happening to the elder’s homes,” he said.

He said the Nation has been moving quickly to adopt recommendations that stemmed from a recent forensic audit and suggested it might be time to reassess.

“It’s time for us to slow down. Let’s do a reality check of what we’re doing. Maybe we got too caught up as leaders on trying to continue to grow us without looking after people properly,” he said. “We got too caught up, after that forensic audit, developing all of these policies that we’ve unfortunately forgot the key component of looking after our people…As your leader, I will commit to ensuring that our staff change those ways.”

He acknowledged communication could improve and said a council meeting will be held on Jan. 19 and a band meeting will be held on Feb. 21. He encouraged members to reach out to him as well as the Nation’s staff.

“Today I want to assure you that today is certainly not only a wake-up-call for our leaders, but I think it’s a good time to say we’re on the same track. We’re in the same canoe. Let’s paddle together,” he said. “Thank you to all of you who came out and supported one another. From this day forward, we need to hold hands, We need to grab the same paddle and we need to go in the same direction because I believe in what was brought up today.”

After the event, Wenstob told the Westerly News said he was pleased to see a clear message shared with TFN leadership.

“I think we all leave here feeling positive and feeling change and feeling the compassion and love that our Nation has for each other,” he said. “We all spoke with respect and we all spoke to a future that we’re all a part of and we’re all making that solution together. It was a really good day.”

Frank told the Westerly he would ensure better communications in the future and added that the Nation is working on a new communications strategy.

“We’re hoping that will be adopted at the Feb. 21 membership meeting so communications will get out more effectively,” he said.