Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

Hereditary Chief refuses to leave job, but band members have voted to oust her

February 19, 2023
Brandon Gabriel, in the area of a former Kwantlen First Nation village site in what is now known as New Westminster, B.C., in March 2019. A Kwantlen First Nation member currently living on Vancouver Island and a nephew of the current chief, Gabriel was part of the group supporting the petition.RAFAL GERSZAK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail: The Chief of a tiny Fraser Valley First Nation is refusing to leave the job her father appointed her to 30 years ago, saying the band’s oral laws mean she is its legitimate leader.

But a group of opponents within the Kwantlen First Nation are escalating their four-year fight to fire Chief Marilyn Gabriel and bring in a new elected government. They have held two votes to oust her and add three new councillors in recent months. And the leaders of this breakaway movement are asking nearby municipalities and First Nations to cease contact with the Chief until the dispute is resolved.

There have been no elections within the band since Ms. Gabriel came to power in 1993, after the 25 years her father spent as hereditary chief and, before him, the three decades her grandfather led the Kwantlen.

On Thursday, the hereditary council – Ms. Gabriel and the two councillors that she appointed in 1994 – filed an application for a judicial review in Federal Court that would declare the breakaway councillors to have no authority and to force its three members and two organizers to immediately stop representing themselves as leaders of the Kwantlen First Nation.

The leaders of the group pushing to overhaul the Kwantlen’s system of governmentsay they welcome any input from the Federal Court after failing to get meaningful intervention from Ottawa in resolving this dispute over this unelected representation, which is also how more than a dozen nearby First Nations are run.

Ms. Gabriel and Councillor Tumia Knott declined interview requests. Ms. Knott sent two statements saying the two votes on their rule in the past four months are invalid and illegitimate because the Kwantlen have no traditional custom of referendum. However, the statement said, they support a dialogue about reform, but any changes to their law would require a “broad consensus” among members, an approach adopted by past Federal Court cases.

“Certainly they are entitled to advocate for a new system of governance and new leadership,” the statement said. “But they have no right to attempt to take over Kwantlen’s government unilaterally to force a result of their own choosing.”

The application to Federal Court, which Ms. Knott shared with The Globe and Mail, notes only 68 of the nation’s 375 members participated in Tuesday’s assembly. About 100 people live on one of the Kwantlen First Nation’s seven reserves, her statement said. Asked why her council has never held elections, Ms. Knott, a practising lawyer, said the Kwantlen First Nation is maintaining its precontact Indigenous traditions of hereditary leadership.

“These traditions cannot be reduced or equated to colonial models of governance,” she said.

The Federal Court application states that the council retained a consultancy in 2019 to survey the nation, but participation was “relatively low, and significantly less than a majority of adult Kwantlen members participated in the surveys.” So no broad consensus was reached on whether to reform their government.

Robert Jago, a Kwantlen First Nation member and spokesperson for the dissenting group who is also targeted in the application, said it is ironic that the council is concerned about consensus given the historic lack of opportunities for members to express themselves at a ballot box. “Every decision in our nation is decided by one vote from our hereditary chief,” said Mr. Jago, who is a writer and journalist for the online Canadaland outlet.

Mr. Jago said there are only 214 adult members of the Kwantlen, with more than half of these people “completely disconnected” from life on the reserves, the largest of which is 191-hectare McMillan Island on the Fraser River. In the recent vote, 32 per cent of eligible voters participated, which he admits “sounds low” but is still well within the customary rule of thumb of 12 per cent of all adults that local First Nations use to reach quorum.

Under the Indian Act, First Nations can opt out of regulations to follow a custom or hereditary leadership selection system. While most of those “custom bands” have developed procedures to handle elections, about 100 were brought under that process without having rules in place, and 19 still have no elected positions of any kind, according to Mr. Jago. Without written policies, it’s difficult to challenge alleged abuses in court, he added.

Under federal legislation, the minister for Indigenous services can order a First Nation operating under a custom system to hold an election. In 2010, Ottawa brought the Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation in Quebec under the Indian Act election system after a dispute over a custom code. It is unclear if another such order has been brought more recently. Indigenous Services Canada said Thursday it could take days to respond to a request for comment on the Kwantlen matter.

After the November general assembly vote to scrap the Kwantlen’s hereditary governance, Mr. Jago wrote to Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu to recognize their effort at democratic reform. In a Dec. 28 response letter he shared with The Globe, Allyson Rowe, a regional director-general in the ministry, said the federal government will not step into the dispute and will recognize the current chief and two councillors until an internal resolution is achieved or a court rules on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jago said, the “extremely successful nations” nearby continue to offer a stark contrast to the Kwantlen, citing the Musqueam Indian Band sitting on more than $200-million in cash reserves. “We compare it to ours, where the big controversy last year was what to do with our failed café,” Mr. Jago said of his nation, which he said has an annual budget of $10-million. “We’ve gone backward.”

With research from Rick Cash in Toronto