A recent Buffalo Point council meeting saw the arrest of four community members, including an 86-year-old Elder.
The four are opposed to the unelected chief of the 140-member nation, and were arrested for breaking a court order that bans them from entering public spaces on the southern Manitoba reserve.
They say Chief John Thunder – the ruling, non-Indigenous, hereditary chief of the nation – is misappropriating federal funding to support his family businesses and turning the nation’s formerly bucolic setting into cottage territory for wealthy Manitobans.
Thunder was recently charged with extortion. RCMP investigators believe Thunder attempted to pressure Manitoba Senator Don Plett into intervening into a property tax battle involving cottage owners.
Andrea Camp, one of the four arrested women, has been voted chief in unrecognized, independent elections. She told CBC News that the four decided to risk arrest in order to learn more details about the charges facing Thunder.
“I just said, ‘You know, they’re not going to tell us what happened,’” said Camp. “The only way we can exercise our right to even know anything is to go to the band office.”
According to Terry Nelson, Grand Chief of Manitoba’s Southern Chiefs Association, Buffalo Point Indigenous people have been asking for democratic elections for 40 years.
He says nothing will be resolved until the federal government outlines a way for the nation to move away from a hereditary system – called Custom Code Governance System in federal government parlance – in favour of a democratically elected one.
“They never answer the fundamental question,” said Nelson. “How does a community get out of the custom code governance system?”
Chief Thunder’s father, Jim Thunder, also served as chief of Buffalo Point. Jim was the non-Native stepson of Shorty Thunder, the last democratically elected, Ojibawa chief.
Nelson says that both Jim and John Nelson have favoured development over community projects, and have little regard for the well being of Buffalo Point’s Indigenous people.
“They came in and took over the reserve, and started selling off the land. People who bought up land came from Steinbach, Manitoba Many are very powerful members of parliament.”
Last year, the Southern Chiefs Association took the formal step of recognizing Camp as chief of the Buffalo Point First Nation. But until the federal government recognizes her as one, that designation has little impact within Buffalo Point.
For Nelson, the federal government’s inaction smacks of hypocrisy, supporting an unelected, unaccountable leader while constantly chastising First Nations and First Nations organizations for a lack of accountability.
For Nelson, the reason is clear.
“There are 400 cottage owners who are white people who vote. The government says, ‘We can’t do anything here. We might have to do something against the white cottage owners.’ That’s a fear they have. So they support the unelected official.”
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs did not return e-mails regarding this story.