A group of Kwantlen First Nation (KFN) members have delivered a petition to the chief and band council calling for a switch from hereditary to elected band governance.
“What we want to do is say what we want for the future,” said Robert Jago, a Kwantlen First Nation member, journalist, and spokesperson for the petition campaign.
With 299 members, the Kwantlen is the largest remaining First Nation in Canada to be run by a hereditary form of government, Jago said. Most of the others have a membership ranging from the single digits to about 50 people, and are effectively one family.
“It is the last of the big outliers,” Jago said of the KFN.
The Kwantlen are currently led by Chief Marilyn Gabriel and a band council – a structure that’s been in place since the 1980s.
The petition calls for a change.
“We, the people of the Kwantlen First Nation, write in the spirit of Love for our Nation, our Culture, and our People – including those on council, and those both on and off reserve,” the petition says. “It is that love that requires us to declare that a new system of government is needed – one that reflects the life experience, the desires, and the talents of the nation as a whole.
“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.”
The petition calls for a transition to a new system, with participation from on- and off-reserve members, the hereditary chief, and counsel, all consulting with the band membership to draft a new community election system.
The KFN band office said there was no comment at this time.
One of the on-reserve members who signed the petition, and asked to remain anonymous, told the Advance Times that there are concerns about the lack of a code or written document to place limits on the powers of the hereditary chief’s position.
“There are a lot of decisions made without the consent of the people,” he said.
Since word got out about the petition drive, there has been anxiety and fear among members, he said. Old, long-standing conflicts between different families are coming to the forefront again.
“My hope is that the chief and council will pay mind to the people who have been brave enough to sign this petition,” he said.
The petition has the support of 31 voting-age members of the KFN, which amounts to more than half the adults who actually live on the reserve in Langley, Jago said. The names of the petitioners have been verified by a third-party service in Ontario, and then removed from the petition that was submitted to the chief and band council Friday, to maintain anonymity.
There have been fears of retaliation by some people signing, Jago said, and some angry exchanges online that he described as “veiled threats.”
Jago said he is one of the faces of the petition campaign because he lives and works in Eastern Canada. He recently wrote for The Walrus about the history of hereditary leadership in Canadian First Nations, and in the Kwantlen specifically. Jago’s family was part of a group that tried to oust former chief Joseph Gabriel, Marilyn Gabriel’s father, back in 1991, he noted in his article.
As for the effect of the petition, Jago said those supporting it have been in contact with the chief and band council at a distance.
Ultimately, it’s up to Gabriel to make a decision on the matter. The federal government could intervene to change the governance system, but Jago noted there have been very few such interventions over the years.