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Year In Review: Competing councils claimed leadership of Kwantlen First Nation

A movement to end hereditary leadership elected its own council in 2022
Kwantlen First Nation Chief Marilyn Gabriel spoke at the opening of the new hospice residence, offering a prayer with her husband and son. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)

As the year drew to a close, the Kwantlen First Nation (KFN) found itself with two separate councils, each claiming legitimacy and leadership.

The KFN, which has its largest reserve on MacMillan Island near Fort Langley, has been one of the few First Nations governments in Canada operating on a hereditary system, rather than some form of elected chief system. It’s also among the largest First Nations to be run by hereditary rule, with around 300 members.

The leader for decades has been Chief Marilyn Gabriel, who took over from her father, who oversaw the change to a fully hereditary system in the early 1990s. Gabriel and a small group of appointed band councillors have formed the core of the government.

But the KFN governance code was put under review in 2019, when a group of KFN members demanded Gabriel resign, and called for a switch to some form of elected governance.

“What we want to do is say what we want for the future,” KFN member and journalist Robert Jago told the Langley Advance Times in 2019.

Third party mediation over the KFN’s governance began that year, but the process was slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A poll taken of KFN members during the mediation suggested a majority wanted some form of government other than a purely hereditary chief.

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.

While the process dragged on during 2020 and 2021, this year, events began moving faster.

On Nov. 27, a different hereditary chief, Robert Thomas (KFN has several) called for an assembly which was attended by several dozen KFN members, who voted to elect three new councillors – Brandon Gabriel, Christopher Thomas, and Victor Back.

“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.

They announced 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.

They asserted that based on the customs and traditional laws of the Kwantlen, the new assembly council is legitimate, and they asked for recognition from the federal government, as well as support from other First Nations in the region.

Two days after the assembly, Marilyn Gabriel and the two councillors of the hereditary government released a statement insisting the new assembly council was not legitimate.

“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.”

The new assembly council called for local governments, including Langley City and Township, to cease contact with the hereditary leadership until the matter is settled.

The year ended without word from the federal government on whether there will be any change in which council is recognized.

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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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