Sheshatshiu protesters deny chief’s allegations

Daniel MacEachern
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The leaders of a group of Sheshatshiu citizens seeking to oust Innu chief Sebastien Benuen say allegations — of threats and bribery with alcohol and drugs — in an injunction are false.

The chief and council of the Innu band in central Labrador have filed a federal court injunction to halt a special election Dec. 15, alleging the people behind a group of critics are motivated by personal and business interests.

But Max Penashue — a Sheshatshiu businessman singled out in an affidavit from Benuen — called the chief’s claims degrading.

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The affidavit says drugs and alcohol were provided at two community meetings held in November over perceived misspending by the chief and council.

“Alcohol and/or drugs were provided free of charge by the meeting organizers, and consumed at the meetings, or after the meetings as an inducement to support the motions and actions being put forward at the meetings,” reads the document.

Penashue said he was shocked to receive the injunction, filed this week, and said it shows how out of touch the chief is with his own community.

“I was very, very surprised when they put the injunction in, because this was the first time the chief doesn’t see what the people are seeing,” he said. “And it’s probably the first time that the chief didn’t recognize what’s going on.”

As a pipe carrier — a sacred position during a sweat lodge ceremony — Penashue said he was particularly upset by the allegations that he and other organizers are buying support with drugs and alcohol.

“Your oath is for the people of the community where you are,” he said. “You have to do good for these people, and this is what really hurts me, when Sebastien accused me of supplying people with drugs. This is what I’m fighting for. I’m fighting for the people to have a good life in the community, and this is what he’s throwing at me. It’s really degrading and sickening what kind of chief we have here.”

Mike Rossignol, a band employee, disputed the affidavit’s claims that the community meetings held in November weren’t held according to Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation regulations. He said attempts to use band facility’s were denied by the band itself, forcing them into other venues, and the meetings still had a quorum of band members.

“It’s like they were trying to avoid us from being able to meet anywhere,” he said. “We had no choice.”

Penashue said Benuen’s response to citizens’ concerns is that of a man more interested in keeping his job as leader than in actually leading.

“He just wants to protect his job, but what job is he doing? Nothing,” he said.

Penashue is a former supporter of Benuen’s, but said the chief changed soon after assuming office in 2010. “I think what happened was there are a few people, advisors, that he’s listening to … he seems like he’s listening to somebody else, not the people.”

Until the issues with the chief and council are resolved, said Penashue, problems will continue to pile up.

“We need a new chief, a new council, and we also need to get everybody at an AGM and look at what’s happening with our money,” he said. “Right now there’s no money at the bank. You can see that the garbage truck is barely moving. There’s a lot of garbage in the community that needs to be picked up. My garbage hasn’t been picked up for a month now. So that tells me right there that there’s no money for the community and there’s no money for people to work. The amount of money that’s supposed to be there, everybody should be working.”

Rossignol said people in the community are disheartened by the legal fight.

“A lot of people, they don’t know what to think. A lot of people think that voicing or expressing themselves was a waste of time,” he said. “They want change, and even though they expressed themselves in a democratic way, they feel like they’re not being heard or they’re not going to be heard. Not everybody feels that way.”

Rossignol said despite his own recent two-week unpaid suspension by the band for his involvement with the protest group, he’s unconcerned about speaking out over problems in Sheshatshiu, including chronic unemployment and drug abuse.

“I think about the kids roaming the streets,” he said. “When I drive around and it’s after 10 o’clock and I see a group of 30 kids that are aged between eight and 11, and it’s past 10 o’clock at night, that bothers me. I asked the RCMP about that, and they said to me that it’s safer for them to be doing that than actually be in the homes where they reside. For the RCMP to say that, that says a lot.”

The injunction will be heard by a federal judge in St. John’s on Dec. 7. James Goodwin, an associate with St. John’s law firm Rogers Bussey representing Penashue’s group, said the hearing could take a full day, with a quick decision expected. “The nature of an interim injunction is it’s going to be a quick turnaround. That being said, it’s up to the judge’s discretion. He or she can decide to wait for a few days and think about it and then come up with a decision. Because it’s an interim injunction, I’m imagining that we’ll get our decision that day or the next.”

Calls by the Telegram to Benuen on Thursday were not returned. Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Organizations: First Nation, RCMP

Geographic location: Sheshatshiu, Labrador

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