'I'm not a victim:' Widow evicted from Westbank First Nation vows to keep fighting - InfoNews

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'I'm not a victim:' Widow evicted from Westbank First Nation vows to keep fighting

Bonnie and Michael Watts pose outside the Westbank First Nation office.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Bonnie Watts
April 17, 2019 - 6:30 PM

WESTBANK FIRST NATION - Bonnie Watts has been through the ringer for the last year, but she refuses to feel sorry for herself.

"There's no way in hell I'm going to identify as a victim," she said. "If you do that you give up all your power."

Over the past week, various news outlets and online comments have portrayed her that way. Her story of being evicted from her home on Westbank First Nation land after her husband died, first reported by iNFOnews.ca, has picked up traction across the Okanagan.

Watts is speaking out to tell her side of the story and warn people that what's happening to her could easily happen to countless band members of Westbank First Nation and across Canada.

Watts is being evicted from her home at 1944 Falcon Lane on Westbank First Nation land after a judge's decision two weeks ago stated she couldn't stay on the property despite her husband leaving it to her in his will.

READ MORE: iN PERSPECTIVE: Bonnie Watts explains her eviction from WFN in her own words 

In April 2016, Watts and her husband Michael, who was a prominent band member in Westbank, successfully applied for the Allotment Lease to Own Agreement program and moved into the Falcon Lane property. They invested $20,000 in renovations at the property.

Court documents and Watts revealed the agreement included a provision that the couple had to live in the property for five years before Michael, who was listed as the lessee, could receive the certificate of possession. That caveat wound up leaving Watts out in the cold.

On April 27, 2018, Michael passed away. While Watts grieved, she at least had the comfort that she could stay at their house. Michael had a will that transfered his estate to her, including the property lease. It allowed Watts to stay on a land she's called home for over 20 years, despite not being a band member.

Watts, who met Michael in 1995, is a member of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation in Ontario. She could have changed her status to a Westbank member when she married Michael, but she kept her status to preserve her heritage and culture.

The will was crucial for Watts. Since she's not a Westbank band member, she can't own band land unless it's leased to her by a member. So she was more than surprised when she received an eviction notice dated November 28, 2018.

The eviction notice expressed condolences for Watts' loss and told her she had to leave the property by Feb. 28, 2019. It also stated this decision was final and not open for review by an arbitrator or for an appeal to any court. Watts disagreed.

"It's our right to go to court," she said.

Westbank declined multiple opportunities to provide any further context for the situation.

Watts contacted a lawyer for assistance. On Dec. 7, he received a letter from Kevin Kingston, council secretariat and legal counsel with Westbank, stating that since Michael died before the five-year mark transitioning him from lessee to owner, it was not within his power to grant the property to Watts. The letter noted the allotment program is designed to give housing to Westbank members.The letter also noted that Michael vacating the property "without proper notice" (i.e. dying) frustrated the agreement.

Watts and her lawyer filed a petition to get the court to recognize the house as belonging to Michael's estate since the couple invested so much money and time into it. They also filed an injunction to delay Watts' eviction and take the matter to trial so more evidence and documents could come to light. That injunction was defeated two weeks ago in Supreme Court. She has two weeks to leave her home.

"I have nowhere to go," Watts said. "It's a tremendous setback."

Bonnie Watts with her late husband Michael.
Bonnie Watts with her late husband Michael.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Bonnie Watts

Watts plans to keep fighting with parts of her petition. She warns other band members who enter into similar five-year lease agreements that her story isn't an isolated one.

"This [Supreme Court] decision creates a lot of uncertainty for band members about their security," she said. "The five-year window creates a field of jeopardy, not just for me."

Watts' lawyer, Michael Hansen, said he has seen similar cases, but not one that dealt with the same factual scenario as Watts' experience, which is why it could be precedent setting.

Watts said she loves the Westbank community, but she's disappointed with the band's decision to, in her words, take her land, deny her occupancy, and forcibly remove her.

"That's not the Native way at all," she said.

Watts said she's received an outpouring of support from her family and band members.

"Members are shocked," she said.

Watts wrote a detailed letter outlining her eviction experience and her attempts to take the matter to court. 

"I will never be sorry an attempt was made to right this wrong on my husband's behalf," she wrote. "We are not finished yet."

Watts keeps an eagle wing her husband owned, often using it for prayer. Despite her series of setbacks, she refuses to let the present affect her memories of the past.

"I had an amazing marriage," she said. "You can't take that from me."

In its emailed reply, Westbank declined to discuss the details of the case, instead reiterating that alloted houses do not become part of a member's estate if they die within the first five years.

Letter to Bonnie Watts lawyer
Letter to Bonnie Watts lawyer
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Michael Hensen

Letter to Bonnie Watts' lawyer continued.
Letter to Bonnie Watts' lawyer continued.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Michael Hensen

Letter to end tenancy for Bonnie Watts.
Letter to end tenancy for Bonnie Watts.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Bonnie Watts

To contact a reporter for this story, email Sean Mott or call (250) 864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

We welcome your comments and opinions on our stories but play nice. We won't censor or delete comments unless they contain off-topic statements or links, unnecessary vulgarity, false facts, spam or obviously fake profiles. If you have any concerns about what you see in comments, email the editor in the link above. 

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