Kwantlen First Nation Hereditary Chief Responds to Petition Calling for New System of Government

The petition, signed by 31 members of the nation, opposes Kwantlen’s hereditary governance model


Images of the Kwantlen McMillan Island Reserve for media use. (File photo)

Thirty-one members of the Kwantlen First Nation, which allegedly totals more than 50 per cent of the voting-age adult population living on the reserve, submitted a petition to the Kwantlen hereditary chief and band council on March 8.

Entitled “a Declaration of the Kwantlen People”, the petition calls for a new system of government “that reflects the life experiences, desires, and the talents of the nation as a whole.”

To move toward this new system, the signatories of the petition make three specific requests of the Kwantlen First Nation—hiring a third-party mediator within 30 days, staging an election for a Citizens Assembly within 90 days, and holding a referendum for a new community election system within 365 days—to be acknowledged publicly by the chief and band council.

The petition also calls for the band council and hereditary chief to enact seven provisions, mostly financial, to ensure the “smooth functions of the Kwantlen government during the transitional period.”

Signatures for the petition were gathered during a two-week, door-to-door campaign held in secret to avoid any potential reprisal from the KFN hereditary government. Veldon Coburn—a professor of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University—served as an independent third party to verify the authenticity of the signatures and to keep the identities of the signatories anonymous.

Comment from Kwantlen First Nation Band Members

Robert Jago, a journalist and member of the Kwantlen First Nation, first reported about issues on the Kwantlen reserve in The Walrus.

He says he was tired of his fellow community members feeling like they had to keep their opinions of the KFN government a secret, adding that its deficiencies became more apparent to him as he visited other reserves throughout Canada. Now, he feels that “it’s only on Kwantlen that people consider it an act of bravery” to speak out against the on-reserve government.

Brandon Gabriel, KPU alumni and Kwantlen First Nation member, has decided to publicly support the petition in hopes that it will help community members speak out without being shamed.

“People are concerned that we have not had an election in our community for a council in 26 years. The term that they use is that Kwantlen has a hereditary council. However, there is no form of governance across Canada where that is such a thing,” says Gabriel. “Even other Sto:lo communities that use [the hereditary] system question where that came from. The only thing that we can say to that is, ‘Because they say so.’”

According to Jago’s article in The Walrus, the Kwantlen First Nation band council passed a resolution on April 1, 1989 to follow a heredity governance model, wherein the position of the chief is passed down from parent to child. A lawsuit from band members in 1991 alleged that this was an “illegitimate leadership.”

“I don’t want people thinking hereditary chiefs are corrupt, because they aren’t,” says Gabriel. “This is just one version of a hereditary system that is being forced on … the community.”

Jago identifies a policy gap in Indigenous Northern Affairs Canada as the source of this problem.

“It’s good that reserves can run their own government and it’s good the way that INAC has set up the system for that to happen … but for reserves like Kwantlen, which have been grandfathered into the system, those charter protections and safeguards aren’t there,” he says. “[It’s] imperative for Ottawa to fill that policy gap so communities don’t have to live like this.”  

Gabriel adds that the agency responsible for overseeing the Kwantlen First Nation’s affairs “are not stepping in and allowing an electoral process to take place in the community.”

Both Jago and Gabriel say they care about their community and all of its members, including those in the government, but emphasize that they want to see a government that is accountable to the people.

Input from the Canadian Government

In a message sent to The Runner on March 22, a spokesperson from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada wrote that the government of Canada is in the process of “charting a new relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, cooperation, and partnership.”

According to the message, the government’s focus since the last election has been to work with First Nations to move away from functioning under the Indian Act and towards self-determination.

“Kwantlen First Nation is recognized as having a custom electoral system, and therefore elections are held under the community’s own election rules,” the statement reads. “Our government respects the electoral independence of Kwantlen First Nation, and therefore any election related complaints should be submitted and addressed in accordance with the community’s election rules.”

Response from Kwantlen First Nation Hereditary Chief and band council

In a response to the petition issued on March 14, Chief Marilyn Gabriel and Councillors Tumia Knott and Les Antone acknowledged a need for change in the Kwantlen First Nation’s system of government, though they dispute that the 31 signatories of the petition represent a majority of the Nation’s voting age members.

“We propose a community-driven process be established to develop as an end goal a new

governance code for Kwantlen First Nation that provides better clarity on Kwantlen governance

for membership, leadership, other levels of government and the general public,” reads the response.

The authors of the response further propose the creation of “a facilitated orientation meeting in April to develop a committee of representative Kwantlen members to confirm next steps and a proposed schedule.” While this process unfolds, they note that the “Chief and Council will continue to take responsibility for managing Kwantlen affairs and government in collaboration with our Elders Table and Lands Advisory Committee.”

While they are “troubled by how this matter was brought forward in the community,” they add that they are also looking forward “to this important community work beginning in the spirit of a better future for the upcoming and next generations of Kwantlen.”