Members of the Buffalo Point First Nation are planning a Federal Court challenge in the hope of removing hereditary chief John Thunder and allowing elections for the first time in more than 40 years.
Mr. Thunder is currently facing an extortion charge in relation to an e-mail he sent to Conservative Senator Don Plett, who is among a group of cottagers in the community at odds with the chief.
Mr. Thunder and his father, Jim, have led the community since the late 1960s without an election. Their leadership has won praise for creating successful on-reserve enterprises – including cottages, a resort and a golf course. However, there has been tension over the years between Mr. Thunder and some members of the First Nation who believe he is not sharing enough of this business revenue with the community.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Thunder insisted that elections would be a waste of time and money on Buffalo Point. He said he has the support of his family and his family is the largest in the small southeastern Manitoba community on the shores of Lake of the Woods.
“I will not waste my time on elections,” he said. “We don’t get money for elections.”
Mr. Thunder said a main cause of tension is he believes revenue from businesses and land deals should go back into things such community infrastructure, while he says his critics simply want to receive direct payments.
Only 40 people are registered as on-reserve members of the First Nation, with a further 82 registered as off-reserve members.
The group behind the planned Federal Court case includes members who took part in an occupation of Buffalo Point band offices in 2012 to protest Mr. Thunder’s leadership.
Mr. Thunder secured a court injunction last year that bans 18 individuals – including long-time members of the First Nation – from entering community facilities such as the band office.
In granting the injunction, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Rick Saull suggested the protesters take their issue to court.
“Although I am somewhat sympathetic to the concerns of the defendants regarding the manner of governance at Buffalo Point, I am not persuaded that what occurred here was a ‘peaceful protest’ or that this is the ‘only manner’ to effect change,” he wrote. “In the latter regard, as far as I am aware, no steps have been taken to pursue a lawful route to effect change, for example, filing a court action for an order that an election take place.”
Mr. Thunder’s critics held an election in April to select Andrea Camp as chief of Buffalo Point, but in a letter, the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs refused to recognize that result.
This summer’s release of information under the new First Nations Financial Transparency Act brought new attention to the community.
The information revealed that Mr. Thunder was paid $116,918 tax free last year and also received $12,480 in expense reimbursement. Mr. Thunder strongly objects to the way this information is disclosed. He argues that the figures unfairly include the money he earns running the on-reserve businesses on behalf of the community.
Mr. Thunder is among several chiefs who argue this level of disclosure puts First Nation businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
Winnipeg lawyer Norman Boudreau is representing the individuals planning to challenge Mr. Thunder in court. He said he is working on the file at no charge because he feels it is “a flagrant injustice” that community members can’t vote for their leader.
“Being disenfranchised of their rights as First Nations is quite appalling and totally disgusting actually,” he said. Mr. Boudreau said that according to his research, there is no history in the region of hereditary chiefs.
Ms. Camp, who has been recognized as chief of Buffalo Point by the regional Southern Chiefs Organization, said she feels Ottawa is ignoring the challenges to Mr. Thunder’s leadership.
“He thinks he can do anything,” Ms. Camp said. “He doesn’t feel like he answers to anybody and he never has, ever.”
A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Buffalo Point selects its leadership under a custom code, meaning the Indian Act voting rules do not apply.
“This being said, our Government is committed to working with First Nations to ensure they are accountable and adopt good governance practices,” said Andrea Richer in an e-mail.