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Man convicted in (Namgis First Nations') big house arson.

Windspeaker Contributor


The man charged with burning down the Namgis First Nation's 30-year-old big house in Alert Bay was convicted in Campbell River's British Columbia Supreme Court on March 27.

Julio Castro-Andino was arrested in Port Hardy the day after the August 29 fire and charged with arson. Justice D.A. Thackray heard the case through the third week of March. The convicted arsonist will be sentenced on May 8.

Castro-Andino arrived in Alert Bay in 1996. He emmigrated to Canada from El Salvador five years earlier and may face deportation proceedings as a result of his eight-day trial. Defense attorney Douglas Schofield submitted that his client was laying on the beach the morning of the fire and was nowhere near the big house. Schofield conceded the accused had been seen behaving erratically that night, due to a fight over child custody. He had been undergoing a lot of scrutiny in the community of which, the defense conceded, he was not a welcome member.

Crown Attorney David Fitzsimmons challenged Castro-Andino's alibi with several witnesses who described his behavior throughout that night as erratic and threatening.

" "The band council had called for his banishment and the RCMP were informed. He had faced charges of trespassing and he understood what we were doing," Namgis First Nation band manager Lawrence Ambers explained.

The trial provided a certain amount of closure to the incident. Elders sat in on the preliminary hearing, the trial and the verdict.

Meanwhile plans for a new big house are proceeding.

"We had an architect come forward on a volunteer basis to help us on the design of a new facility." Ambers said. "We found consulting engineers on a volunteer basis, and Western Forest Products volunteered to find the trees for a new big house. The main problem right now is finding the right size of trees."

The First Nation aims to replace its big house as soon as it can.

"This level of volunteer assistance means we may be rebuilding this year," said Ambers, "The band assembled the all-volunteer artist group to design the artwork inside. The aim is to replicate the original big house. We will have the same art inside and the same design of the main beams, though the room will be larger. The totem poles will be the same. The house front design will be the same."

Insurance coverage will make the rebuilding process a lot easier.

"There was a negotiated buy-out on the policy. With insurance proceeds and fund-raisers we have $1 million of the $1.2 million necessary to replace the treasured property," the band manager said.

Ambers said the Namgis council is thankful for the continual offers for help. Artists from across the province have sent donations for auction.

"We raised $65,000 with a fund-raiser in Campbell River. Another night in Alert Bay we raised $30,000, including a $10,000 cheque from the provincial government hand-delivered by a government official."

The site of the fire has been cleared away and awaits new construction, but the burning of the big house shook the 1,400 member community.

"I think some people are still saddened. There is nothing there anymore where so much had been done in the community."

Namgis family histories became interwoven with the 30 year old building.

"Names are passed to the children in a ceremony at the big house," Ambers explained. "Memorials are conducted in the big house. Government to government agreements are signed there. Celebrations of land claim victories are held in the big house. This structure contained the soul of the community. It was a symbol of our ability to survive as a people."
COPYRIGHT 1998 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McColl, Malcolm
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:May 1, 1998
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