Tensions flare in Natuashish

Old grudges stirred by accusations of smuggling, vote-buying

Published on April 29, 2014

It’s a story with all the ingredients of a good novel — smugglers, old grudges and claims of shady political manoeuvres, with opponents accusing each other of jockeying for votes with the promise of illegal booze.

But none of the allegations are proven and, in reality, it’s a sad reflection of some of the issues facing the Labrador Innu community of Natuashish.

Simon Pokue, a band member, recently sent a letter to the Natuashish band council lodging a complaint against council member Sebastian Piwas.

He alleged Piwas is involved in smuggling booze into the community, breaking the alcohol ban that’s been in place since 2008.

“I learned that the contraband booze that was smuggled in was to be used to buy votes in an upcoming trust agreement referendum which will be held on May 5,” the letter states.

“I ask the chief and council in their obligations and powers, to reprimand and discipline councillor Sebastian Piwas by removing him from council for the best interest of the community.”

But Piwas, when contacted by The Telegram, denies being involved in booze smuggling and said Pokue has a personal vendetta against him.

In fact, Piwas charged, it is Pokue who is known as a bootlegger in Natuashish.

“There is no merit to what he said on the letter. It’s all bullshit,” Piwas told The Telegram.

“I used to go out with the woman that he married. He’s been attacking me for the last 30 years. He’s trying to interfere with band council business.”

Band Chief Gregory Rich said the whole fuss is over politics. He said he approached Piwas on the issue and concluded the allegations were false.

He said he believes Pokue is stirring things up now because of an upcoming referendum in which members of the Innu Nation — the umbrella group to which band councils in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu belong — will be asked to allow the band councils to use some of the money held in a youth trust fund — meant for future generations — for other purposes in the communities.

The Innu band councils of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu have tried in the past to obtain money from the fund to finance incomplete infrastructure projects, but there was resistance among members of the Innu Nation.

Rich noted Pokue ran unsuccessfully for the position of grand chief of the Innu Nation in 2012, and is a former member of the Natuashish band council.

He said Pokue has been challenging the results of the election he lost last November.

“He has been very upset with the results,” Rich said. “(The allegations) are completely false. I can assure you I didn’t use these substances to become chief, and none of the council members used alcohol or drugs. These are completely false allegations towards us.”

Pokue said he has yet to receive a response from the band council to his letter.

If the issue is not resolved, he said, it will send the wrong message to the public and prevent the band council from gaining the trust of the community.

He said he called the RCMP about his allegations a week or so before he sent the letter and was told the RCMP would look into it.

When contacted by The Telegram, however, the RCMP said it had not received any complaint and therefore no investigation is underway.

Meanwhile, Rich said that despite their allegations against Pokue, the council has not yet contacted the RCMP about those.

“None of the community members have come forward to report this because they will be targeted. They are scared,” Rich said.

“The allegations towards the chief and council are completely false. He’s the one who is committing this illegal activity in the community of Natuashish. We will be discussing this with the RCMP.”

Natuashish is a community of more than 700 people.

In 2008, fed up with social problems exacerbated by alcohol, the band council asked residents to vote on an alcohol ban. It passed by just two votes.

In 2010, another referendum was held on whether to maintain the ban. At that time, 188 people voted to keep it, while 125 voted against it.

Still,  there remains a client base for smugglers who see the opportunity to turn a profit on illegal booze in the town.

The activity keeps the RCMP busy. For instance, from September 2013 to February of this year, RCMP in Natuashish laid 51 charges. The charges were against multiple people and covered illegal alcohol possession, consumption and intoxication on the Natuashish Innu Reserve.

The people of Natuashish have had their share of social problems over the years, including addiction, suicide, gas sniffing and domestic violence.

Natuashish is a relatively new community — the Innu were moved there from the island community of Davis Inlet in December 2002 and early 2003.