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Tsawwassen First Nation ruling sets stage for tense rematch

Chief Bryce Williams, 23, of the Tsawwassen First Nation was a surprise winner in September’s election for chief.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Tsawwassen First Nation, poster child for carving out treaty and land rights within an urban environment, has been plunged into uncertainty, after an independent judicial panel tossed out the band's recent election results.

The surprise ruling means that Kim Baird, the veteran, high-profile leader who was pivotal in steering the TFN to its landmark treaty, will have a chance to reclaim her position as chief, after a stunning, narrow loss to a relatively unknown 23-year-old three months ago.

But the pending rematch between Ms. Baird and her youthful replacement, Bryce Williams, has heightened tension in the small, normally tight-knit community.

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"Yeah, there are some people not happy to go through another election, and the cost," Mr. Williams said Tuesday, after the unanimous decision by a three-member judicial council. "It's something a lot of people didn't want to see happen."

Ms. Baird agreed the atmosphere within the TFN has been tense, since the election result was appealed by two complainants, her brother and her niece.

"It's been a crazy kind of time," she said. "I'm relieved there's a decision, because having it hang in the air has been taking its toll on everyone."

Asked whether she thought the coming campaign will be bitter, Ms. Baird replied: "I think it will be tougher, for sure. A lot of things have passed and [been] said. There's a divided view on who's best for the job, and who's responsible for the hurt feelings. There's a lot at stake."

The controversy has erupted just as the TFN is beginning to move ahead with dramatic plans to develop its expanded territory, sandwiched between a busy ferry terminal and coal port, and the suburbs of Delta and Tsawwassen, just north of the U.S. border.

Projects under way include two mega-malls and a large housing development.

The judicial council, headed by B.C.'s conflict of interest commissioner Paul Fraser, ordered a new election because one of the pre-election notices sent to all TFN households referred to voting day as "Thursday, Sept. 5" instead of Wednesday, the correct day of the week.

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Although frantic efforts were made to correct the error once it was noticed, the panel ruled there was evidence that at least nine possible voters were affected by the mistake, and that was the margin of Mr. Williams's victory, 78-69.

For the same reason, the council, established under the TFN's new constitution, also overturned the outcome of voting for the 12 legislative positions on the community's governing body. Notice of a new election for chief and legislators of the Tsawwassen First Nation must be posted no later than Jan. 11.  At least 90 days notice must be provided for the election, itself. Until then, those elected, including Mr. Williams, may remain in office.

In its 26-page judgment, which followed a day-long, public hearing last month, the council noted their decision may create uncertainty and encourage litigation whenever a mistake is made. "But those concerns cannot outweigh the fact that some people have been disenfranchised by what has occurred."

Ms. Baird, 43, is one of the province's most prominent natives. She had been been aiming for her seventh term as chief, when Mr. Williams defeated her.

It was not an easy decision to run again but "this is a real critical time" for the TFN, said Ms. Baird, who has continued to be employed as the band's strategic initiatives director. "We need to see through some of the things I started and make sure Tsawwassen is on a stable footing as we go forward, especially with some of the bigger projects we have in the works."

Mr. Williams, who supports the grandiose developments launched during Ms. Baird's time as chief, said he will campaign on the same issues he put forward during their initial election tussle. "It's about culture and working with youth and letting people have more contributions to our government. Things like that."

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He said he has no choice but to accept the council's decision. "They went through the right process, and it is what it is, really," said Mr. Williams, adding that he has been settling in as chief, despite his lack of experience. "Obviously, there are still a few things I have to learn, but I think it's been going well."

Editor's Note: Notice of a new election for chief and legislators of the Tsawwassen First Nation must be posted no later than Jan. 11.  At least 90 days notice must be provided for the election, itself. Incorrect information was published Wednesday. This version has been corrected.

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