Gambler First Nation first came to The Brandon Sun’s attention in May. An off-reserve member, Darlene Gerula, sent the Sun an email describing a variety of issues with leadership she felt placed on-reserve members’ lives at risk. Among these concerns was the use of Akwaton multipurpose wipes, the product of a company the leadership at Gambler was hoping to purchase. Health Canada recalled the wipes in late June because the product both expired in 2015 and contained polyhexamethylene guanidine hydrochloride, an ingredient not approved for use in Canada.
In the months since Gerula’s email, the Sun has met and spoken numerous times with several Gambler members and heard their stories. This is part one of a three-part series.
GAMBLER FIRST NATION – Gambler First Nation is in the midst of an ongoing and ever-growing invisible crisis.
“If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it,” said band member Darlene Gerula in one of many interviews with The Brandon Sun.
Gambler First Nation has a membership of just under 300 people, of whom roughly 70 live on reserve. There are 42 houses. Two of those houses were built this year – the first builds the reserve has seen in eight years.
Approximately two dozen long-time on-reserve band members — elders and young people alike — have reported mistreatment at the hands of a leadership that includes Chief David Ledoux, his wife Rose and their daughter, Kellie, one of two councillors.
This leadership has refused to answer any questions from members or from the Sun.
Allegations of mistreatment include homes being padlocked, homes left for years in disrepair (making them essentially unlivable), water withheld, threats of electricity withheld, health services withheld and repeated attempts at seizing houses to offer them to off-reserve members and supporters.
Gambler has hired a team of lawyers to handle its court actions.
Both prior to and after receiving Gerula’s email, the Sun repeatedly attempted to contact the band to visit and learn about the community. When we did place a call, we were told to communicate by email. Six emails have gone unanswered. We also communicated by Facebook Messenger, to no avail. For a brief time, we received statements from a marketing firm that acted as liaison. That firm is no longer involved with Gambler.
The leadership has actually been in question for two years, with current Chief, David Ledoux, remaining in power against the band’s own custom election laws. The band has its own electoral process under the First Nations Elections Act, rather than the Indian Act.
Gordon Ledoux, who won the second 2018 election as called by the band’s election committee, died Nov. 8 in hospital, while the matter remains in a judicial review before a federal court. Indigenous Services Canada continued to deal with David after Gordon’s election.
“Because Gambler First Nation’s custom code process is outside of the electoral provisions of the Indian Act, the department does not play a role as to how the community’s leadership is selected or how governance disputes are resolved, although the department can offer support through mediation or facilitated meetings on request,” stated Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Leslie Michelson.
“When a governance dispute arises in a community that selects its leadership under its own community (or custom) process, the dispute must be resolved in accordance with the community’s own rules, or through the courts. If ISC receives conflicting governance reports, it will record election results by community agreement or at the direction of the courts.”
On paper, and in public, all appears right at Gambler. The First Nation is developing an urban reserve in Brandon and has a settlement of more than $300 million with the federal government coming down the pike.
Gerula and her husband, Greg Wakin, first met David and Rose at an NDP fundraiser and were initially impressed.
“He was a Christian. We thought, pillar of the community,” Gerula said, adding it was her brother, Vern Kalmakoff, who arranged for the couple to attend, as he was unable to.
That original meeting took place shortly after Gerula’s treaty status was reinstated in 2015 — her grandmother had married a non-Indigenous man and was stripped of her status. Kalmakoff and Gerula are John “Falcon” Tanner’s direct descendants.
That ancestor was a white man, kidnapped by an Ojibwa tribe, who then married two Indigenous women during his lifetime, history tells. He is an integral part of Gambler’s origin story. A Falcon grandson, Atakawinin (”The Gambler”) Tanner is the First Nation’s namesake. The Gambler’s brother Joseph Tanner is Kalmakoff and Gerula’s great-grandfather. Another grandson, John Tanner, established Tanner’s Crossing, which is now known as Minnedosa.
David came to power at Gambler in 2012 after he transferred back to the reserve. He took over from his brother, Gordon, who had to resign for health reasons. By several accounts, David arrived at Gambler with very little, his family in tow.
During the summer of 2014, 14 band members occupied the band office following a meeting that saw a quorum of on-reserve band members vote to oust David. At the time, band member Donna McGillivary said, “We want to be heard and bring it into the open about how we are being treated here.”
There is a culture of nepotism on the reserve, McGillivray said at the time, and David is using intimidation tactics to silence people who oppose him.
Concerns about using off-reserve members — who were unaware of what was taking place on the reserve — for votes surfaced then, as they did during the 2018 election.
The band office is now in Russell, inaccessible to band members without vehicles.
McGillivary declined to speak with the Sun for this story.
When Gerula’s great-grandfather, Joseph, died, Kalmakoff and Gerula’s great-grandmother married Felix Ledoux. David Ledoux’s mother, Nellie, was also a first cousin to their grandmother. The families at Gambler are so interlinked that the band’s custom election laws once stated only a blood descendent of John “Falcon” Tanner could be elected chief. A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision in 2015 abolished that practice after Sharon Tanner, who married into the family, filed a complaint when she was barred from running for chief.
That decision also found that David firing her from her position as an economic development officer with the band was an act of retaliation.
Gerula and Wakin knew nothing of what was happening on the ground at Gambler.
Gerula and Wakin are linked to the Brandon land project, an urban reserve project along 18th Street North in Brandon. The couple said David and Rose asked for help to form businesses and generate some revenue for Gambler. The couple found the properties and developed the relationship with the City of Brandon, they said.
In 2019, the couple accepted an invitation from David and Rose to head out to Gambler to work. Wakin, retired from 30 years as a Winnipeg Police Service officer and a former owner/operator of two restaurants, took on the role of health director in May of last year. Gerula — herself a businesswoman who successfully owned a trucking company with her former husband of almost 30 years — volunteered at the health centre.
The experience was intended to be a return home of sorts for Gerula, and her little grandson joined them. Her son, an information technology professional, also joined them during the summer and volunteered his services.
“It’s Darlene’s family,” Wakin said. “It’s her family place of origin. We thought it would be good to get to know the community — try to fit in.”
A house David promised was not forthcoming and the couple spent their first month living at a hotel nearby, at their own cost, then above a woman’s garage in neighbouring Russell, 15 minutes away. They continued to eat out, as they did not have access to a kitchen. Luckily, they kept their place in Winnipeg, Gerula said.
On the reserve, Gerula and Wakin soon became concerned about the misappropriation of funds, the public shaming of staff and general conditions they witnessed at the reserve.
“We kept thinking it would turn around, but every day it just got worse,” Wakin said.
As an example, Gerula offered the story of a school bus. Using federal funding, David bought a full-sized 72-seat school bus, which he then traded in for a semi-truck. There are approximately 15 school-aged children at Gambler who attend school in nearby Binscarth. The semi now sits unused.
Gerula also recounted how she came across a grant for a couple hundred thousand dollars to bring fibre-optic internet to the reserve. The area sometimes goes days without connectivity or with poor connectivity. But the deadline was short.
“I’d asked Kellie and Rose for information. Then they disconnected my email. I called them. ‘I have a proposal I’m working on. The deadline is now tomorrow.’ They said, ‘Yeah, yeah we’ll get it up and running,’” Gerula said.
At a staff meeting where staff members reported on what they were doing, Wakin mentioned the proposal Gerula had worked on and how the opportunity was now lost.
“Rose started yelling at me. I’d never been treated with such disrespect or abuse in my life. And my life as a child was no walk in the park. I’ve never in my life been treated like this,” Gerula said.
“She started yelling that I had no right to be sending emails, who do I think I am. We’re talking — yelling and spitting. Yelling at the top of her lungs in front of the entire staff. When she was done yelling at me, her daughter-in-law started yelling at me.”
Gerula looked over to her husband and told him she couldn’t do it anymore.
“I left. I was crying. I can’t do this. I’m volunteering.”
Wakin immediately resigned. The couple left the reserve in September of last year. They’ve since been advocating for Gambler members. As has Kalmakoff.
“I just want what’s right for the members,” Gerula said. “The homeless to have a home. Those with medical conditions to have their needs met. Those hurting to get help. I know you can’t help everyone, but those who want help.”
A visit to the reserve by the Sun on Oct. 16 painted a picture starkly and shockingly different from the public image.
On the drive to Gambler from Brandon, Kalmakoff, who is an off-reserve band member and long-time Brandon businessman, owner of Vern’s Appliance Sales Service & Parts Ltd., spoke of the travails many members are experiencing.
His greatest concerns were Gordon, who at the time was extremely ill, growing more ill, and had been refused health care on the reserve, and Sean Ledoux. Both are David’s brothers. He also had concerns about Roxanne Brass, a sister to all three.
Gordon also won a human rights case against Gambler First Nation in 2018, for which David testified as Chief, and retaliation was one element cited in the decision. Gordon’s story, “Housing feud between brothers at Gambler First Nation,” appeared in the Sun on Oct. 3.
Gordon suffered from many ailments, even as he had been couch surfing with relatives on the reserve for several years. He had severe diabetes, with ulcers in his feet and legs. He had five heart attacks. Half his stomach was removed at the age of 17.
“He is often comatose when he goes into hospital and doctors expect him never to make it,” Brass said in October, weeks before her brother’s death.
“Gordon always surprises the doctors and miraculously survives. He is the strongest man I know that keeps surviving.”
Gerula said Gordon and Brass called her when Gordon was denied foot care on-reserve.
“I spoke with the nurse. She told me she did do his feet, and Mackenzie (Olynyk, health director) told him not to come back,” Gerula said.
“The nurse said if anyone at Gambler needed foot care it was Gordon.”
With the refusal of medical care he had no way to get to dialysis, Gerula said.
“We have two medical vans that are supposed to transport members to their medical appointments. He was denied that. With no way to get to dialysis, he stopped the treatments. He could be a burden. Roxanne works a couple hours away. She couldn’t drive him.”
Gerula, to whom Gordon gave permission to advocate for him specifically, said Gordon was mortified the last time he went to get foot care on the reserve.
“With the health director telling him not to come back, telling him she could and would refuse all his health care needs … he didn’t want to be a burden on everyone. Treatment would be two-to-three times a week. With no treatment or help from Gambler … how does he get there,” she said.
“The nurse was also setting up physio so he could walk. The health director denied that. He was tired of fighting for everything.”
Gordon’s death gutted Kalmakoff. He’d come to admire Gordon, and Kalmakoff couldn’t believe Gordon was giving up.
“I didn’t know that the end was so close. Friday (Nov. 6), I went to see him. I heard he was really, really sick. He was beat. They beat him. They friggin’ beat him. They have two $80,000 health vans that are sitting there most of the time,” Kalmakoff said, adding David used them as his personal van.
“I used to see him all over the place and they weren’t on health business. That’s what they’re designed for, to take people to the medical centre or to the hospitals, run them back and forth. For him (Gordon) to be denied that, it’s nothing short of a crime.”
Gerula and Brass told Kalmakoff that Gordon planned on stopping treatment and just go to the other side.
“They said that he wanted everybody to accept it. He was worried about what I thought, what I was gonna think.”
Kalmakoff feels he could have turned it around, told Gordon to snap out of it.
“Then even bring him home. I would have kept him at home. Gave him a ride myself,” he said.
“He was too good of a person. Not only that, he was so valuable to our cause. It doesn’t have to be that way on Gambler. It really doesn’t. A little bit of decency ... If David had a little bit of decency, it would be a lot different. But he just has none. Now, he’s putting the boots to Sean. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Kalmakoff appeared uncomfortable speaking negatively about anyone during his conversations with the Sun. He winced as he tried to explain what he knew of how David treated people, especially David’s own family.
But his anger at how many on-reserve members are being treated proved greater than his discomfort.
Parts two and three of this series on Gambler First Nation will appear in the Sun in the coming week
Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun