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Tiny First Nation wants court to end ‘dictatorship’

OTTAWA — Dissident members of a tiny Vancouver Island First Nation, frustrated by the federal government’s refusal to end a 30-year family “dictatorship,” are heading to court to fight for their democratic rights.
The Da'naxda'xw have 227 registered members, but only 19 live on the reserve on Harbledown Island, near the entrance to Knight Inlet on the Central Coast.

OTTAWA — Dissident members of a tiny Vancouver Island First Nation, frustrated by the federal government’s refusal to end a 30-year family “dictatorship,” are heading to court to fight for their democratic rights.

The decision to go to the Federal Court of Canada came after the three-person Da’naxda’xw First Nation council — controlled by Chief Gordon Glendale and his elderly mother Anne Glendale — refused at a public meeting in Campbell River on Saturday to hold an election.

The dissidents have been fighting for years to get the federal government to force the Glendales, who took formal control of the community in 1987, to share power.

The 19-member Glendale family lives in the village of Tsatsisnukwomi, also known as New Vancouver, on Harbledown Island. The community is about 25 kilometres east of Alert Bay on the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island.

The remaining 208 nation members live off reserve, mostly in nearby Vancouver Island communities such as Alert Bay and Campbell River.

“We’ve been waiting for 30 years for an election and we’ve had enough,” Robert Duncan, one of four Da’naxda’xw hereditary chiefs, said this week in an interview. “If we can’t work it out with membership, we will have the courts work out a solution.”

In 2013, when Postmedia first reported that Ottawa had poured $9.1 million over a dozen years into a community of fewer than 20 individuals from the same family, then-aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt expressed concern about the lack of democratic accountability.

Ottawa has since sent another $1.9 million to the nation.

In 2015-16, for instance, the Da’naxda’xw, with 227 registered members, but only 19 — all Glendales — on reserve, received $627,989 from Ottawa.

That total fell short of covering “band government” costs that rang in at $641,000.

Nicole Hajash, a lawyer and nation member fighting for elections, said off-reserve members aren’t benefiting from the transfers.

The federal Department of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, which has since at least 2010 been lobbied to step in, said in a statement this week that it will continue to take a hands-off approach.

“We have no legal jurisdiction,” said Sabrina Williams, a spokeswoman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

The Da’naxda’xw leadership is determined through a “custom hereditary system” rather than the election rules under the Indian Act, Bennett’s department said in a prepared statement, referring to the option that Canada’s First Nations have to set up their own election systems.

The department is therefore “unable to get involved in how the community’s leadership is selected, or how governance disputes are resolved.”

The department acknowledged, however, that it has received complaints and has “reached out to both the band council … and concerned community members to encourage them to engage in dialogue and work together to resolve governance issues, including the development of a custom election code or a governance policy.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which has championed fiscal and democratic accountability in First Nation communities, labelled the situation “downright scary” in a prepared statement on Wednesday.

“One family has controlled every part of their peoples’ lives,” said federation spokesman Jordan Bateman.

He slammed both the current Liberal government and the former Conservative government for not pushing the Da’naxda’xw council to hold open elections.

“Right now, it seems the only individuals Ottawa wants to protect on that reserve are the dictators running it.”

Attempts on Tuesday to reach Chief Glendale or his sister, band administrator Molly Dawson, were unsuccessful.

In 2013, Dawson dismissed the notion that elections are necessary.

“That’s how the Canadian government works, yeah,” Dawson said in a telephone interview. “Our traditional hereditary system doesn’t work like that. Ask all the First Nations — the Canadian election system isn’t working.”

She also argued that off-reserve members are apathetic and haven’t shown up in significant numbers when the Da’naxda’xw call meetings.

Tsatsisnukwomi was abandoned in the 1960s because of a lack of public services, including schooling, but in the 1980s, then-chief Bill and Anne Glendale moved from the Courtenay area back to the island and renovated an old house.

The couple began lobbying the federal government for funding to rebuild the community, and, in the late 1990s, a sympathetic federal official supported the request to fund the construction of housing and basic services, starting in 2001.

The Glendales registered as a “custom code” band in 1987 after Bill and Anne, in a resolution sent to Ottawa that was signed by 21 Da’naxda’xw members, declared that he would be hereditary chief and that his wife would be one of three band councillors.

The resolution declared that Glendale would “take his rightful place as the hereditary chief,” adding that “this custom shall pass from generation to generation until such time as the tribe wishes to change it back.”

Brad Morse, dean of law at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops and a specialist in aboriginal governance, said the challenge is that the Da’naxda’xw became a custom band shortly before the federal government adopted clear rules to ensure democratic accountability for bands that opt for custom elections.

Morse, who expressed concern about the situation in a 2013 interview, said it is likely that the courts, not Ottawa, will end the dispute.

“I confess I am extremely disappointed that this situation remains unresolved,” he said.