Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Chiefs replace one of their own

John Thunder out, new leader in at Buffalo Point

By: Alexandra Paul

Winnipeg Free Press

A powerful Manitoba chiefs association has taken the unusual step of backing calls for democratic elections at scandal-ridden Buffalo Point First Nation by recognizing a new chief.

The Southern Chiefs Organization passed a formal motion in a meeting this week to recognize Andrea Camp as the chief of Buffalo Point, Grand Chief Terry Nelson said.

The motion means current Chief John Thunder is no longer recognized as an aboriginal chief by his fellow leaders. Thunder, who says he is a hereditary chief, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"The chiefs recognized Andrea Camp because she has the support of the people, and at some point if there is a clear and fair election at Buffalo Point and they elect John Thunder, then he will be the recognized chief," Nelson said Tuesday. "The chiefs didn't vote against John Thunder, they voted for the representative of the people of Buffalo Point."

It's rare for First Nations chiefs to speak publicly against each other. The SCO agreed to a special meeting to consider Buffalo Point after residents protested Thunder's leadership style.

Band members believe he is trying to force them off the reserve so he can develop the land for more cottages. They complain that band funds from Ottawa for their benefit are used to support reserve businesses privately owned by the Thunders and their supporters.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office released a carefully worded statement late Tuesday in response to the development in Winnipeg:

"The Buffalo Point First Nation selects its leadership under a custom community system (custom code), and are elected or selected in accordance with the community's established process," the minister's office said.

"Any specific questions with respect to a First Nation's custom election process should be directed to the community. AANDC has not been advised of any changes in the leadership of Buffalo Point First Nation."

Camp said she was picked by the majority of adult Ojibwa band members on the tiny reserve and all but two of the 17 who live there stood beside her in a show of strength at the SCO meeting in Winnipeg on Monday.

Two off-reserve band members, one from Detroit Lakes, Minn., and another from Alberta, also attended.

That leaves another 15 or so off-reserve Ojibwa band members Camp wants to canvass before the band officially informs Ottawa of the change in leadership and how it will proceed with elections, she said.

A hereditary position

JIM Thunder, then his son John, have led Buffalo Point First Nation as hereditary chiefs for the last 40 years.

Before that, the chief was elected but the job nearly always went to a member of the same family, which may explain the adoption of the hereditary chief by the Thunders. Jim Thunder was the non-native stepson of the elected Anishinabe chief, Shorty Thunder, through a second marriage to Sara Conover, Jim's mother. John, who is also not Ojibwa, is Jim's son.

According to local history, the community on Lake of the Woods, where Ontario, Minnesota and Manitoba meet, was once a gathering site for Ojibwa ceremonies.

In the last 40 years, the father and son who made the chief's position hereditary turned the bucolic setting into a thriving cottage area and retirement community for non-natives.

Fractious relations with band members and the Thunders reached a breaking point a year ago, when the existing chief won a court injunction banning band members from public spaces on the reserve. Four women face criminal charges for breaking the injunction.

Last fall, the chief, John Thunder, was charged with criminal extortion involving allegations against Sen. Don Plett. Plett's wife owns a cottage on the reserve. Close to 400 cottagers are in a protracted court battle with Thunder over his attempt to levy property taxes.

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