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Competing band councils claim legitimacy at Kwantlen First Nation

Hereditary chief faces challenge from new council chosen by recent assembly
Brandon Gabriel is one of the three band members who are part of a new, assembly-elected band council that is also claiming to be the official council to the Kwantlen First Nation. (Langley Advance Times files)

Kwantlen First Nation (KFN) currently has two band councils, as two separate groups claim leadership.

For decades, the KFN – which has its largest reserve in Fort Langley – has been one of the last First Nations in Canada with governance by a hereditary chief. Chief Marilyn Gabriel took over from her father, and has run the band with a small number of councillors for many years.

But starting a few years ago, a group of KFN members who were dissatisfied with the leadership and the governance structure, began agitating for change. They started with a petition.

The governance code has been under review since 2019, when a group of KFN members demanded Gabriel resign as chief. Third-party mediation began over the future of the band’s governance.

On Nov. 27, there was an assembly, called by a different hereditary chief, Robert Thomas, and vote that saw three new councillors elected – Brandon Gabriel, Christopher Thomas, and Victor Back.

They plan to create a new written governance code, based on consensus and discussions involving the mediator, and put that forward for a community referendum within 90 days.

Brandon Gabriel is the nephew of Marilyn Gabriel.

READ ALSO: Petition calls for end of hereditary rule for Kwantlen First Nation

READ ALSO: Mediator appointed after petition calls for Kwantlen governance change

“Our people, and our nation are effectively being held captive by Marilyn Gabriel’s antics,” said Brandon Gabriel, in a statement by the assembly council.

Robert Jago, a KFN member and journalist who has been speaking for the assembly council, said the new council has the backing of Kwantlen tradition and laws.

“Our laws are not ambiguous,” he said, adding that other bands have similar traditions.

“It’s going to be up to the community – not just our community, but the wider Coast Salish community… to tell her [Marilyn Gabriel] that what she’s doing is wrong,” Jago said.

Both groups now assert they are the legitimate band council.

A letter issued on Nov. 29 by Marilyn Gabriel and two councillors called the assembly on Nov. 27 a gathering of “a small number of registered community members.”

“The Hereditary Custom Chief and council did not call this meeting. The four resolutions approved by a mix of registered members and other non-members are not valid,” her letter said.

It says that on Nov. 28, Marilyn Gabriel and her council approved a resolution that confirms “that the Kwantlen from time immemorial has carried out Coast Salish Ancestral Law for hereditary leadership.”

“Early next year, we will begin to engage community members to review the governance code,” the letter concluded. “We intend to maintain our Hereditary Custom Code, set standards, improve communications, and engage elders and community members in setting the community vision and priorities.”

A press release written by the assembly-chosen council called on Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu to recognize the new council.

Jago said the referendum on the assembly council’s governance code will solve the issue once and for all.

They’ll be drawing on two years of consultation and mediation to create the new code, and working with Indigenous legal experts, Jago said.

He also pointed to a survey that was done during the consultation, asking KFN members what system of government they wanted.

Of those polled, 27.94 per cent wanted the current hereditary system with appointed councillors, 22.06 per cent wanted a hereditary chief with an elected council, 16.8 per cent wanted a hybrid option with an elected chief and council with a hereditary chief who would have their own role, and 29.41 per cent wanted an all-elected model.

The assembly council is also calling on local municipalities and school boards to cease contact with the KFN for anything other than basic service delivery – like firefighting and water – until the governance issues are settled.

Marilyn Gabriel and her family are frequent guests and speakers at public events, including the recent swearing-in of the new mayors and councils in Langley City and Township, and they have also been involved in events around reconciliation with the Langley Board of Education.

The letter from Marilyn Gabriel and her council also addressed a recent investigation by the Langley RCMP, saying an allegation of assault by the hereditary chief at an Oct. 6 meeting was “unfounded.”

Langley RCMP released a statement, saying its investigation into the alleged incident has been concluded.

“We recognize that reports of this alleged incident had an impact on the community,” said Supt. Adrian Marsden, Officer in Charge of the Langley RCMP. “I would like to assure everyone that the matter was thoroughly investigated, and our officers found no evidence that an offence occurred.”

Marsden said frontline officers carried out the initial investigation, and on Nov. 2 the Langley RCMP’s general investigation section re-opened the file after more information came forward.

No further investigation is expected, the RCMP statement said.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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