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Alberta First Nation votes to give band power to evict gang members

Members of a crime-troubled First Nation south of Edmonton are voting on whether to give community leaders the power to evict suspected gang members. A five-year-old boy was fatally shot in this house on the Samson Cree First Nation reserve Monday morning, July 11, 2011 near Hobbema, Alberta. The boy was the grandson of the Chief Marvin Yellowbird.

Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press/Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press

On Mistawasis First Nation, west of Prince Albert, Sask., a particularly troublesome resident who persisted in selling drugs was the first - and only - band member to be exiled under a new banishment law.

That move in 2006 served as a wakeup call to other potential miscreants and has not been invoked since.

"It set a precedent," said Chief Norma Johnstone, "They know the ban means business."

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Banishment is an old way of dealing with modern problems and it has become the latest tool being used by aboriginal communities plagued by scourges such as drugs, crime and gang violence. Samson Cree Nation, a band in Hobbema, Alta. that became etched in the national consciousness as a place where children have been shot while simply being at homes, voted into the evening on Wednesday about whether it too should also adopt the ancient practice.

"Tell them to take that step," urged Ms. Johnstone.

And Samson members did just that, but turnout was low and the support was not overwhelmingly in favour.

The results showed 479 people supported the new eviction regulation while 370 voted against it.

The bylaw still needs to be approved by Ottawa to come into force. Neighbouring band councils were watching to vote closely and could well follow suit, according to some Samson Cree officials.

Samson, which is one of four reserves that make up Hobbema, south of Edmonton, is rich with energy resources. It has about 7,500 members, many of them young, and once they turn 18, they can tap into trust funds stuffed with oil royalties. It is home to more people who are not working than those who are. Substance abuse and crime is a fixture of life.

Band officials have been talking about holding such a vote for years, but it was only in October that a resolution was passed to go ahead with a referendum that would oust those who "present a danger to the health or safety of the community."

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The impetus truly came after Chief Marvin Yellowbird's five-year-old grandson, Ethan Yellowbird, died as he slept in his bed after a stray bullet blasted through the wall in July, 2011. The boy's next door neighbour, 23-year-old Chelsea Yellowbird, who was at a known gang house, was shot to death two months later. In 2008, 23-month-old Asia Saddleback was eating dinner at her grandfather's house when she was hit by a bullet that remains lodged in her spine. An 18-year-old gang member, who told the court he used his $40,000 royalty cheque on drugs and booze, was later sentenced to 13 years in prison related to Asia's shooting and other offences.

About 2,500 people were eligible to vote as polling stations were set up on the reserve and also for far-flung members in Edmonton and Calgary. Officials are optimistic the vote will have an impact.

"It's going to hold people accountable for their actions," said Councillor Kirk Buffalo, who speaks on behalf of the band.

The "residency" bylaw would allow any 25 residents to apply to have a troublemaker evicted. The RCMP would have the authority to help remove that person. And anyone who harbours someone who is banished could themselves be kicked out.

"We don't expect that it will be a be all and end all," said RCMP Staff Sergeant Robin Alexander, who is one of 42 officers based at Hobbema, "It's just a small part of what the community is trying to do to enhance the safety of people living here."

New lighting has been installed, brush has been cleared away and derelict buildings have been closed. A community task force has been set up.

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Carmen Saddleback, whose older sister was killed on the reserve, worries the bylaw will be used by some to claim newly-vacated houses and argues it doesn't force parents to do a better job.

"It's kind of iffy," the 25-year-old said, "I kind of agree with it and I kind of don't."

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