STONEY NAKODA – Damp wood hisses and cracks as a blaze slowly grows inside the fireplace at Elder Rhonda Kaquitts’ home.
Wearing gloves and a toque, the 67-year-old apologized for being quiet and tired as she picks from a wet wood pile dumped on her living room floor and places a piece on the small fire.
She hasn't slept a lot since power was cut to her house on June 25 – leaving her with no electricity or heat for at least 13 days. It is the latest attempt from the Chiniki band to force Kaquitts to move from her home that she shared with her late husband and family for the past decade and a half.
"I don't know why they want this house – what is it made of gold?" Kaquitts asked with a half-smile while watching the flames.
The battle to get Kaquitts out of her house is one that started about a year after her husband Gerald Kaquitts died in 2007, when the elder was first issued a notice to vacate from the Chiniki band, part of the three-band Stoney Nakoda First Nation.
Kaquitts was told the home belonged to her late husband's brother, Harvey Kaquitts, but the eviction was challenged internally through the band and the widow was permitted to stay.
But a decade later, the elder was issued another notice to vacate, which stated she did not have a certificate of possession or certificate of occupation, meaning she is not entitled to reside in the home.
Providing and managing housing on-reserve is the responsibility of First Nations. Designation of homes to individuals or families is decided by Nation leaders, according to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). Evictions and tenant protections on reserves are also based on bylaws and/or policies set by chiefs and councils or band administration, governed by the Nation.
While some reserves across Canada have programs for Nation members to pay the cost of their home over a period of time to obtain a certificate of possession – similar to a mortgage – it is not a system commonly used by the Chiniki band, or within the Stoney Nakoda Nation.
After receiving the second eviction notice a couple of days before Christmas in 2018, Kaquitts obtained legal counsel requesting a judicial review of the matter in federal court. The matter was scheduled to be heard in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced the province to shutdown non-essential services and adjourn court matters unless it was an emergency or in-custody related.
The elder then received another notice to vacate letter on May 1.
"As you are aware, Chiniki Chief and council have demanded that you vacate House Alarm #5053 and return to House Alarm #5044 which is shown as being assigned to the late Gerald Kaquitts on Chiniki Housing records ... Pursuant to its authority over Chiniki housing, Chiniki Chief and council passed a band council resolution yesterday, April 30, 2020 to evict you from the House Alarm #5053 if you have not voluntarily removed yourself and returned to House Alarm #5044 on or before Monday, May 25, 2020. The eviction will be by third party and locks on the doors will be replaced," said the May 1 notice to vacate letter, signed by Chiniki CEO Brian Evans.
Kaquitts' daughter, Angela Kaquitts, said the house the Chiniki band is attempting to relocate the elder into, is one that Kaquitts' daughter is currently residing in, but they do not consider it safe for an elder. The home's front steps are broken and there's flooding in the basement, which Angela said is an annual occurrence. She said her mother loves her current home and should not have to move.
"For the past couple of years my life has revolved around this issue – it has taken a toll ... my mom hasn't been safe since my dad died," Angela said.
Band council resolutions, also known as BCRs, require signatures from all leaders to make the resolution valid. Given the Stoney Nakoda Nation is compromised of three bands with three chiefs and four councillors for each band, BCRs can be passed with all leaders from all three bands if it is Nation-wide related, or specific band matter can be signed by the leaders of that specific band.
On June 30, the Kaquitts family received the Chiniki BCR dated April 30, stating the "Chiniki First Nation is represented by chief and council, who have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the First Nation."
The BCR, signed by Chief Aaron Young, and Councillors Charles Mark, Colin Simeon, Jordie Mark and Charles Powderface, states chief and council have authorized legal counsel to seek an order of ejectment and vacant possession to remove Kaquitts any anyone claiming through her from the residence.
The Chiniki band chief and CEO did not respond to the Outlook's requests for an interview.
Kaquitts said she has tried to request mediation several times between her and the Chiniki council to no avail.
"I have decided to talk to the Chiniki Chief one-on-one with the goal of resolving this matter outside of legal proceedings. Furthermore, we have not attempted mediation. So I am requesting that we mediate this matter in a fair and safe venue. I am also requesting that Stoney Elders be in attendance to provide guidance as Stoney law will help resolve this matter," wrote Kaquitts in a letter to Chiniki Chief and council, dated Nov. 21, 2019.
The elder sent another letter a week later outlining problems she was facing noting her health was not good. Three months later she was issued a letter from MLT Aikins law firm asking her to "cease and desist any and all communications whether by telephone, electronic mail, in person or any other means, with the members of council until at least the outcome of the April 16, 2020 Application."
"Our client informs us that you have been repeatedly telephoning the individual members of council in an attempt to request the withdrawal of Chiniki's ejectment application against you ... please note that another warning will not be issued. Govern yourself accordingly," the letter from the MLT Aikins law firm dated Feb. 6, 2020 read.
After the court proceeding was adjourned, she received the May 1 notice to vacate.
Wanting to wait for the judge's decision, Kaquitts stayed in her home, but couldn't have expected the band's next move.
The plugged-in clock on the dining room wall stands still at 1:46 p.m., as the elder and her daughter explained how two people, one from Fortis Alberta and a Nakoda Security employee, cut power to the transformer on June 25.
Kaquitts was buying groceries while Angela was at the home and asking why the utilities were being cut. Angela said the two men did not answer and within minutes the lights went out.
Kaquitts had to throw out most of her groceries as the produce and meat started to spoil and go rotten without proper refrigeration. The elder is relying on her family to bring her food now and they've discussed buying a gas-powered generator in the interim.
"I can't even boil water," Kaquitts said with a small laugh.
Alana Antonelli, a Fortis Alberta spokesperson said there were three planned power outages on Stoney Nakoda on June 25 for maintenance purposes. On June 30, when the Outlook inquired if scheduled outages could last up to five days, Antonelli said: the "length of this outage would indicate that it is not part of any of planned power outages for the area."
Power remains out at the residence as of Wednesday (July 8).
During this timespan in Cochrane, adjacent to Stoney Nakoda, the average daily temperature for highs was 18.66 C and daily lows averaged 7.58 C, according to AccuWeather.
Next to candles and the fireplace, Kaquitts has been sleeping on the couch in the living room at night. Four others live in the house as well, but at least two have moved out due to the current situation.
"I've never done anything to them," Kaquitts said with a tired look. "My life is totally different after my husband died ... I just want this resolved so I can live my life."
Legal advocate and family friend, Rob Louie, is helping the Kaquitts family and said it's sad to see an elder treated this way.
"Typically an eviction would be driven by causing a disturbance or illegal [activity or] drug use – Rhonda doesn't even drink ... It is legally and morally wrong for the band to use council power in that way," he said.
Rachel Snow, a law school graduate and Indigenous law consultant, is concerned about the situation and said cutting Kaquitts power is a terrorizing attack on an elder.
"It gives a different idea of on-reserve functioning in mainstream Canadian society," said Snow, who's a Wesley band member from Stoney Nakoda. "This makes it hard for [Kaquitts] because where does she turn to? I feel as a woman, as an elder, a grandmother, [and] she's trying to be a mother to her late son's kids; for all those different reasons there has to be some kind of discussuon between all the parties and some kind of remedy."
Angela said her family is grateful for the support they've received.
"We want to send out positive messages to people. My mom doesn't want anyone else to go through what we have," Angela wrote in an email.
In a sworn affidavit filed in January 2019, the elder said she doesn't understand the eviction as she has lived a quiet life being a wife to her husband and mother to her children.
"There have never been any complaints against me about noise or nuisance," Kaquitts said in her affidavit dated Jan. 29, 2020. "I have led a peaceful existence in my house ... I intend to rely on Stoney traditional customary laws in this matter, as well as other judicial legal doctrines. For example, in Stoney traditional customary laws, when the husband passes away in a tribe, the widow and their children were respected, taken care of, they would never try to kick them out of their teepee, especially if the husband was a leader and elder."
The elder met Gerald when she was 15 and he was 17 years old and married when she turned 18. She noted her late husband worked for the Stoney Tribal Administration and that he served two terms on Chiniki council. In the affidavit, Kaquitts said her family transitioned to the home in 2005. House Alarm #5053 originally belonged to Gerald's parents, Frank and Kathleen Kaquitts, but they passed away in 2002.
Kaquitts said after her husband died from cancer in 2007, she was approached by his brother, Chiniki Housing manager Harvey Kaquitts, who asked her to move out.
"He said, 'I want my house' and 'I want you to move out.' I felt scared and intimidated by Harvey. I always relied on my husband Gerald to protect me. So, when Harvey approached me, not only was I still grieving the loss of my husband, but I was also very vulnerable," she said in her affidavit.
A decade and a half later, Kaquitts, sitting next to her fireplace, looked into the small yet glowing flames and said she's not leaving her home.
"I don't want to move from here," she said.
"This is the first house I lived in after my dad's house. It is my home ... If you think about it, it's really sad to go through all of this.
"I've spent my life here."