Gerald Johnny first gained some notoriety in the mid-1970s.
He was charged with stealing a truck in the Chilcotin. Presiding over his case was Judge Cunliffe Barnett, who also gained some notoriety at the same time. The good judge cleared Johnny of the charge, given that the only evidence presented was that Johnny was seen in the vicinity of the stolen vehicle. Prior to that day the fact Johnny was First Nations and seen in the vicinity of a crime was enough for a conviction.
Johnny went on to become chief at Tl’etinqox-t’in (Anaham Indian Band). With more than 1,200 people living on the reserve it is one of the larger reserves in the Interior and, arguably, one of the roughest.
Johnny, during his tenure as chief, stopped children from the band-run school from visiting the pool in nearby Williams Lake because he didn’t want native kids visiting a “white man’s pool,” suggesting band kids could learn to swim in the nearby Chilcotin River. He also fired the white principal of the school, who subsequently received a nice settlement when she took the band to court.
Such things happen when we elect leaders who may not have everyone’s best interests at heart.
But Gerald Johnny, when he was chief at Tl’etinqox’t’in was a double-threat because he is also a hereditary chief. Hereditary chiefs are descendants of the chiefs who ran things before the colonial government of Canada imposed democracy on reserves.
It continues to be one of the extremely divisive issues on reserves today. When Gerald Johnny was turfed by his electorate, he continued acting like a chief making statements and issuing decrees. Some don’t accept the imposition of democracy and feel the real leaders of the reserves are the hereditary chiefs. Others feel that hereditary chiefs offer wisdom and perspective, something the hereditary chiefs themselves may, or may not, have or want to give.
Often what happens is a community becomes divided.
It’s kind of like Canada and the monarchy long before it broke from British rule. Some accepted governance from Ottawa, others felt the king or queen should give us our marching orders.
On reserves, where the population can sometimes be measured in the dozens, the lines between hereditary chiefs and elected chiefs can be very marked, very different and familial. It can cause tremendous problems.
It happened last Friday when Gitxsan hereditary chief Elmer Derrick announced they had taken advantage of Enbridge’s aboriginal economics opportunities package to share in the wealth of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
It took everyone by surprise, including most of the Gitxsan people who oppose the pipeline.
“I feel really, really awkward,” elected Chief Marjorie McRae told the Smithers Interior News. “I mean I’m the elected chief of the community and I’m standing there in front of a couple of band members looking for answers.”
It’s kind of like if Queen Elizabeth had entered the HST debate here in B.C.
And therein lies the problem some feel the hereditary chiefs should hold the power on reserves, while others feel those who are elected and, like all democratically elected leaders, are subject to dismissal by the electorate, should hold the power.
Personally, I’m all for democracy. There’s still no guarantee we won’t elect a megalomaniac, but I’d rather we elect a crazy than have one come to power solely because he or she comes from a long line of crazies.