Members of B.C. First Nation withdraw support for hereditary system of government

A group of members of the Kwantlen First Nation reserve have called for governmental reform. Kwantlen First Nation

Thirty-one adult members of the Kwantlen First Nation near Langley, B.C., have submitted a petition to the band’s chief and council, demanding that elections take place.

That number is equal to more than half the number of adults actually living on reserve, according to a group calling itself A Committee of the Kwantlen People.

The petition reads, “We thank the chief and council for all of their efforts at building and healing our nation. Now the next steps must be taken by all of us together. To move forward, we must first affirm that We, the People, withdraw our support for the hereditary system of government, and ask the chief and council to work with us in developing a new system.”

Spokesperson and band member Robert Jago said the Kwantlen First Nation is one of less than 5 per cent of First Nations in the country under “hereditary rule”.

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“Democratic government was never put in place or never endured once it was put in place. Kwantlen did at some point have elections in the past. Over the years though, the system of hereditary government has become entrenched, so since the 1990s, there’s been no vote on reserve,” Jago said.

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The petition filed to hereditary chief Marilyn Gabriel said the Kwantlen First Nation doesn’t currently operate under any written governance rules. Band council members are appointed by Gabriel.

“Without written rules, and with power centralized with the Hereditary Chief, many band members — especially those off reserve — feel excluded from their band government and without a recourse to make changes,” the petition reads.

Jago said he’s interviewed Gabriel before, for a book he wrote on the reserve. He said Gabriel told him a hereditary system is more stable, and better for business.

Jago said the First Nation is unique, in that a large number of members live off reserve. He said many of those members feel they’re not involved in the affairs on reserve, adding that people living on the reserve also have complaints.

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“There are lots of claims of nepotism, favouritism, that many people have problems with. But primarily, it’s about inclusion,” said Jago.

“The people filing the petition aren’t looking to take a negative position and say: ‘Oh, these things are wrong, we need change.’ What they’re saying is regardless of the past, for our future, we want a system that includes all of us.”

The petition said there is a “widespread anxiety about potential retribution” to people who sign it — so entries are being kept anonymous.

Jago said members of the Kwantlen First Nation have tried to organize against the chief and council several times over the past 40 years. He said in one case, a family involved in a similar organization were publicly cut off from band resources.

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Jago said the chief and council have until March 22 to respond to the petition — after which, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan will be asked to mediate.

If necessary, they’ll be asked to “exercise their authority to bring the band under the First Nations Election Act,” according to the petition.

But Jago said that’s not how members of the committee want to go about this. He said they want to be collaborative, rather than confrontational.

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Global News has reached out to the Kwantlen First Nation for comment.

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