By: Alexandra Paul
Winnipeg Free Press
STEINBACH -- Helen Cobiness wore a crisply tailored crimson coat to court.
Though visibly frail, Cobiness entered court in Steinbach Thursday on the arms of two granddaughters ready to face charges for doing what most of us take for granted: entering her First Nation's government offices, the equivalent of a town hall.
The elderly woman was recovering from a broken bone in her foot and it was apparent she lacked the strength to walk far.
When the judge called her to the stand, the 82-year-old widow of Eddie Cobiness, one of the Group of Seven aboriginal artists, rose gingerly from her seat.
The court watched while she made her way slowly to the witness stand. Provincial court Judge Kelly Moar was quick to ask her to sit down.
As anticipated, Cobiness pleaded guilty to breaching a court order.
Both her granddaughters and a fellow band member made the court appearance with Cobiness. All four face the same charges.
The four women from Buffalo Point First Nation broke the law last October by going into the band office at the tiny Ojibway First Nation near the Manitoba-Minnesota border.
Cobiness's granddaughter, Kari Cobiness, 21, will enter her guilty plea in March.
The other granddaughter, Kari's sister, Brittany Cobiness, 20, entered a guilty plea, along with fellow band member Andrea Colette Camp, 54.
The First Nation's hereditary leader, Chief John Thunder, obtained a court order against most of the members of his community a year earlier. It bars specifically named band members from entering band offices and all public places on the reserve.
Meanwhile, the chief faces extortion charges in connection with threats made to Sen. Don Plett. Plett is among hundreds of non-native cottagers embroiled in a long-running dispute with Thunder over property taxes at Buffalo Point.
Thunder's extortion charge last October followed an alleged attempt to interfere with a lawsuit over the property taxes levied against non-native cottagers.
The four Buffalo Point residents said they had walked into the band offices in October 2013 to get details on why their chief had been arrested. Instead, they were arrested for violating the injunction.
For the Cobiness family, the breach represented yet another political stand in a list of many against the authority of a chief they don't recognize.
For Camp, the guilty plea put her livelihood as a respiratory therapist in the hands of the court.
She's on record saying she knew the risk and took it on principle. Other band members have described Buffalo Point in stark terms, calling the chief and his administration dictatorial.
After some leniency -- the court stayed a long list of charges against the women so each pleaded guilty to a single breach -- the court also agreed with an unusual request to order a Gladue report.
Courts order these pre-sentence reports for aboriginal accused when there's a possibility of jail time.
A Gladue report takes into account circumstances aboriginal people face, but this report may be among the first to involve grievances against a hereditary chief.
"A Gladue report will show the institutional abuse they are facing is not from the white system but from their own governance system," their lawyer, Norman Boudreau, said.
The most the women likely face is a fine.
In his argument, Boudreau said such a report would outline the discrimination residents at Buffalo Point face daily.
"My clients are being disenfranchised. They are unable to obtain services from their band office. Their rights as Indians have been trampled," Boudreau said.
Boudreau said none of his clients has a criminal record. He expects to ask for an absolute discharge at the next court appearance on May 15.