After hundreds of drivers were charged toll to use a road through a First Nations reservation on Saturday, the band’s Chief says members were just looking out for the safety of their community.
Brenda Wallace, Chief of the Soowahlie First Nation, says the decision to charge toll after Saturday’s wind storm shut down the main road out of Cultus Lake was not discussed with Chief or Council, and that she regrets the way the situation developed.
“We usually do lock our gates on the weekend, since it accesses our main residential area,” she says. “We just prefer in the event of an emergency people go through the Sleepy Hollow Road.”
After the roads closed, Wallace – who was in the United States on Saturday – says hundreds of cars were travelling through the reservation, many failing to obey speed limits. After one member of the Soowahlie was almost hit by a car, the decision was made to lock the gate. After being unable to find the lock, the member then began turning people away, directing them to nearby Sleepy Hollow Road.
“From what I heard people were quite aggressive and wanted to just get through the gate, and they were telling them [they] have to use the alternate route,” says Wallace. “People were defensive, or offended, name calling started, the racism began.”
Wallace says some drivers then began offering money for use of the road.
“[Members] kept denying it saying ‘that’s not the case, we’re actually just closing the road because it’s unsafe, and we can’t control the traffic.’ It’s a main residential road, and there are lots of kids.”
After more members arrived, Wallace says the decision was made to charge $20 for the use of the road, in an attempt to control the traffic, though she was not present for the planning, and so doesn’t know exactly what transpired.
“I don’t really know what happened there,” she says.
After two hours, hundreds more cars had travelled through the gate, with members collecting $2,000 in toll money. Once council members in the area became aware of what was happening, the decision was made to close the gate.
“Some people were offended they were asking for the $20, some people were willing to pay it, it just became out of control. People weren’t abiding by the speed limits,” says Wallace. “The council members that were in the area decided that it was definitely becoming too aggressive, out of control, unsafe for the people that were actually trying to man the gate. Those members went to go get the lock, and closed it off.”
Eventually, local RCMP arrived and began directing traffic to the Sleepy Hollow Road. Wallace says that with emergency evacuation plans in place, this could have happened much sooner, and avoided the situation entirely.
“I’ve been speaking with the Fraser Valley Regional District and the Cultus Lake Park Board regarding emergency preparedness planning, and emergency evacuation routes were definitely something we had discussed, whether we would have to be the source of the route to get people evacuated, and how that would look,” she says. “Unfortunately, we did meet last Tuesday and this Saturday the incident occurred, and the plans we’d discussed hadn’t been put in place.”
The following morning, Wallace began receiving phone calls and Facebook messages about the incident, and called an emergency band meeting to get the full story. She says that while she doesn’t necessarily agree with the toll, her first obligation is to her community.
“I think it would be great if people understood that we were basically watching out for the safety of our community. We’ve had so many incidents on our main road where children almost get hit, we get names called at us, racist remarks, and it’s on our own reserve,” she says. “I think enough was enough, and it’s just a quiet neighbourhood road. I definitely think it should have went a different way, and I regret that it happened the way that it did. It was out of my control.”
Wallace says the money that was collected from tolls will go the Soowahlie Elders and Youth program, and to maintaining the reservation’s gravel roads. Wallace says that while there are negatives comments directed towards the band over how things were handled, she is doing her best as a leader.
“At the end of the day I know I can’t please everyone. I’m just thinking about what I value and trust as a leader, and what I should be doing,” she says. “I know there’s negative comments out there, I choose not to look out those. It’s none of my business what people think of me, I can only do what I can do to the best of my ability.”