Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Buffalo Point families choose leader

First Nation moving to oust hereditary chief

By: Alexandra Paul

Winnipeg Free Press

BUFFALO POINT FIRST NATION -- First there was a vote, a series of official oaths of office and signatures on a batch of legal paperwork for Ottawa.

Then a traditional pipe ceremony and drumming with 53 people that lasted three hours to celebrate an event not seen here since the 1960s.

Buffalo Point, in the southeast corner of Manitoba, elected its first chief and council in 47 years Saturday. "This is a moving and touching day for all of us," said Ernest Cobiness, one of four new councillors sworn into office with the new chief, Andrea Colette Camp, 54.

"I want to congratulate Andrea on being our chief and the rest of the councillors and the people. We have one focus and that is to keep going ahead," Cobiness said.

The point of the event was to serve notice to a hereditary chief whom almost everyone wants out of office.

With Colette Camp's election, the new governing council at Buffalo Point is now ready to turn to its first task of government -- to set up a universal vote for a full election. Ottawa lists 140 band members as of 2006; the people at Buffalo Point think it's closer to 200 people scattered from California to Calgary and all have to be registered to vote.

Saturday was a custom election in which the chief was chosen by representatives of the families on the First Nation. It's legal under the Indian Act that governs most of Canada's 633 First Nations.

"I'll be faxing, emailing the papers to the minister of aboriginal affairs and the region (Sunday)," said Norman Boudreau, the lawyer who drafted the legal conditions for Saturday's election to challenge hereditary chief John Thunder.

Ottawa said it will take no part in deciding who leads Buffalo Point. The federal government's position is it's up to the people to decide who is chief.

Thunder had his lawyers send a letter warning the band he would not tolerate disruption to his leadership. In the tersely worded response, Thunder's lawyer, Uzma Saeed, warned voters Thunder will fight their choice in court.

The lawyer's letter listed 18 band members banned from entering public offices at Buffalo Point. That's the subject of an injunction Thunder won in court after a six-week sit-in with band members demanding democratic elections two years ago.

Colette Camp is one of four women from Buffalo Point who violated the injunction last October by going into the band office on the tiny Ojibwa First Nation. Three of the four, including Colette Camp, pleaded guilty but the case is still before the courts.

The election was held in the one house on Buffalo Point that isn't owned by the band.

Helen Cobiness threw open her home for the event. Cobiness also officiated as one of three female elders who draped the new chief in her formal blanket of office.

"I believe we have to get together and nominate one chief, and we have to do it together," said Sam Gibbons, 82, the eldest among the heads of five of the six families on the Buffalo Point band list.

"We all agree this girl here should be chief. We want to get rid of the chief we have now, John Thunder," said Gibbons.

The centre of the ceremony was the last to speak.

Colette Camp pledged her commitment. As a band member who was born off-reserve in the United States, she gave credit for the election to the tenacity and work of the on-reserve population -- the Cobiness, Lightning, Kakaygeesick and Goodin families who stayed at Buffalo Point.

"You guys," she said, looking around at a crowd of faces beaming back at her. "You have fought so hard and so long to keep our presence here. All of you stuck it out and you know what I'm talking about because you've lived it."

Thunder is at the centre of a series of lawsuits involving band members and non-native cottagers.

He faces an extortion charge 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.

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