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Kwantlen First Nation leadership battle goes to federal court

Marilyn Gabriel has been Kwantlen First Nation's hereditary chief for 27 years. Some band members are hoping to change the band's current hereditary system for one that includes elections.  (Rafferty Baker/CBC - image credit)
Marilyn Gabriel has been Kwantlen First Nation's hereditary chief for 27 years. Some band members are hoping to change the band's current hereditary system for one that includes elections. (Rafferty Baker/CBC - image credit)

The hereditary chief of a B.C. First Nation is defending her leadership inside a federal court after a group of band members voted to remove her and elect a new government just over a year ago.

Marilyn Gabriel, hereditary chief of the Kwantlen First Nation, filed an injunction against band members who held a general assembly in November 2022 where attendees voted to remove her and expand the council.

According to court documents, Gabriel contends her removal was unlawful and she is asking the federal court to stop the reformed government from representing itself as the "legitimate government of Kwantlen First Nation."

However, supporters of the reformed council say they followed Coast Salish customs in electing a new government, and opponents of Gabriel's leadership have been subjected to years of political repression.

The chief's opponents say there is too much power in too few hands for a nation the size of Kwantlen, which includes seven reserves that cover 5.6 square kilometres of the Lower Mainland.

"What we're seeing happen is basically a perversion of our customs," said Robert Jago, spokesperson for the newly-elected councillors and one of the respondents in the injunction.

"We're seeing one faction of one family completely take over the reserve and exclude the rest of the nation of our governance, our affairs, our economics, and in doing so, we've seen the nation really fall behind our neighbours in Metro Vancouver."

Robert Jago, a Kwantlen First Nation member who started a reform committee calls the B.C. Civil Liberties letter outlining the right to freedom of expresion in his First Nation, 'groundbreaking.'
Robert Jago, a Kwantlen First Nation member who started a reform committee calls the B.C. Civil Liberties letter outlining the right to freedom of expresion in his First Nation, 'groundbreaking.'

In 2019, Robert Jago, a Kwantlen First Nation member who started a reform committee, took his concerns to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. (Supplied by Robert Jago)

CBC News reached out to Gabriel and appointed councillor Tumia Knott, but did not receive a response by publication time.

In her affidavit, Gabriel said there "is no custom of the Kwantlen First Nation for members to call meetings at which fundamental changes may be made to the governance of our Nation."

She also said that since 2019 her government had been exploring whether reforms were needed through governance dialogue consultations with band members.

Hereditary leadership

In the injunction, Gabriel's band council writes that Kwantlen First Nation has followed hereditary leadership systems since time immemorial.

In 1953, the nation passed a resolution requesting that an election system set out in the Indian Act not be extended to the band, instead opting to choose councillors as band custom. Ottawa since recognized the First Nation as running under a custom code, a customized form of governance determined by the nation.

In her affidavit, Gabriel says hereditary leadership has always been the First Nation's custom, with the role of Kwantlen hereditary chief tracing back to her grandfather in the 1930s. She was appointed by her father, Joe Gabriel, in 1993.

Gabriel then appointed Tumia Knott and Les Antone as councillors in 1994.

Opponents take issue

But Gabriel's nephew says hereditary leadership within a First Nation doesn't mean one person or family rules in perpetuity.

"The model that is used in our nation is more reflective of the British model of hereditary rule as opposed to a Stó:lō, a Coast Salish, or Kwantlen model. The person who is at the head of it has abused this system," said Brandon Gabriel.

"That hereditary system has limits, there's no supreme leader who can be installed for life who can't be held accountable when they've caused harm."

Brandon is among a group opposed to Marilyn Gabriel's rule, citing a lack of transparency and overreach in her appointed leadership over the years.

In 2019, Jago brought the concerns to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, saying band members were restricted by the band's leadership in speaking out about the First Nation in public or on social media.

Concerns over the nation's power structure came to a boil in November 2022 when attendees at a general assembly of band members voted to oust their hereditary chief and vote in Brandon Gabriel, along with Victor Back and Christopher Thomas as elected councillors.

Jago and Gabriel contend the ceremony was in accordance with Coast Salish longhouse traditions that supersede the custom code and have been recognized for centuries.

In the injunction, Marilyn Gabriel calls it an "ad hoc" meeting that was "not legitimate." She says it was organized by band member Robert Thomas with little notice.

"I understand from a video posted about the evening and shared on social media that only a couple dozen people attended, including many non-members," she wrote.

Jago and Brandon Gabriel say of the 68 residents who live on reserve, more than 40 attended and voted overwhelmingly in favour of removing the hereditary chief.

"It's a much higher turnout than assemblies that occur in other communities for this type of decision making," said Brandon Gabriel. "We believe we conducted ourselves fairly in an open an honest way."