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Buffalo Point Chief John Thunder fights back against critics

By Leslie McLaren, CBC News

A war of words over who is leader in Buffalo Point First Nation has broken out between chief John Thunder who, along with his father, has been in power nearly four decades and an American put in place by Manitoba's Southern Chiefs' Organization under newly elected leader Terry Nelson.

SCO passed a motion recently recognizing Andrea Camp as chief. She was one of the protesters who took over the band offices last fall.

But John Thunder is firing back at his critics.

Thunder, who claims he is hereditary chief of the community in southeastern Manitoba, said the southern chiefs' group has no jurisdiction in Buffalo Point.

He said he's still the chief of Buffalo Point First Nation, in spite of what Nelson, SCO's new Grand Chief, says.

"[The] Grand Chief has stepped out of bounds in that regard," he said. " I don't even recognize what he's done. Plus, we're not a participant with SCO. I've never agreed with SCO as an organization because we have the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs."

Camp told CBC she was born in Minnesota but is First Nations in Canada.

Thunder said Camp, who is his cousin, is not the first person from south of the border to show up in Buffalo Point looking to put down roots.

"We've got probably about 45 more of these Americans, down in United States, that have never contributed to Canada, at all," he said. "They've never been here to Buffalo Point and supported our developments. All they're doing is coming here, looking for a free ride."

He said he's endured attacks on his legitimacy for years for his efforts to create economic success and make his community independent of the federal government.

Camp, however, said she is overwhelmed by the support of chiefs across southern Manitoba who named her the new leader. She said it's also a victory for band members who are opposed to Thunder's leadership.

"For us, it's that somebody has legitimized our struggle out here," she said.

Camp said a formal election for chief will be held sometime in the near future. She said she may run.

One of her supporters, who asked not to be identified, said Thunder has locked them out of the band office.

He said the group is considering its options, but he emphasized that whatever they do, it will be peaceful.

Lee Delorme, president of the Buffalo Point Cottage Owners' Association, said the change in leadership may be good news for some 300 cottagers who are fighting Thunder in a messy court battle over the chief's attempts to increase property taxes.

Delorme doesn't want to comment on the politics of the situation, but he said there are parallels between the cottagers' legal fight with Thunder, and band members' fight to oust the long-time chief.

"They're after democratic rights," Delorme said of Camp and her supporters. "We're after the adherence of our legal rights. So both of us have a similar objective, but our argumentations and our avenue for redress are in two different forms."

Delorme said in either case, he is confident cottage owners will win their fight in court.

Thunder said he plans to ignore Camp and get on with his job as chief.

"We're sitting here writing the book on economic development for First Nations, for 35 years plus, on how to solve this poverty and dependency, and yet every time we step up to the plate to try to solve these problems, we end up in court."

He also said though, that the recurring controversies are hurting the community's reputation as a bucolic spot to own a vacation home in or retire. Thunder said it's been two years since the community sold a cottage lot.

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