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Edward John (seen here in February, 2015), who is one of British Columbia’s highest-profile Indigenous leaders, has been charged with four counts of having sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Prominent B.C. Indigenous leader Edward John has been charged with sexual offences dating back more than 40 years, following an investigation by a special prosecutor that began in February.

In a statement Thursday, the B.C. Prosecution Service said Mr. John has been charged with four counts of having sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent. The incidents are alleged to have occurred between March 1, 1974, and Sept. 15, 1974, in and around Prince George, B.C., about 800 kilometres north of Vancouver.

Mr. John’s first court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 10 in Prince George.

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A special prosecutor, Michael Klein, was appointed in February to look into allegations of sexual offences related to Mr. John.

The announcement of the special prosecutor’s appointment was postponed to allow for charge assessment and approval, the prosecution service said. Special prosecutors are appointed in cases where there may be potential for real or perceived improper influence such as, for example, cases involving public officials.

Mr. John is one of British Columbia’s highest-profile Indigenous leaders, having served as children’s minister in the early 2000s and as a long-time executive member of the First Nations Summit, an umbrella group for about 150 First Nations in the province.

In a statement Thursday, the First Nations Summit said Mr. John’s elected position with the group ended in June, 2019, when he did not seek re-election, and that he had since been working with the group on contract as an adviser.

That contract has been suspended pending the outcome of the legal matter, the group said.

Attempts to reach Mr. John were unsuccessful.

He is a hereditary chief of Tl’azt’en Nation in northern B.C. and a lawyer who holds honorary doctor of laws degrees from the University of Northern British Columbia and the University of Victoria.

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He has been an outspoken champion for Indigenous rights, including through support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which B.C. implemented in October.

As special adviser on Indigenous children in care, he wrote a 2016 report that decried the over-representation of Indigenous children in the childcare system and included 85 recommendations, including help for youth who are aging out of the system and incorporating culture and language into care plans.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said he was shocked by the news but wanted observers to allow the court process to play out without rushing to judgment.

"The court of public opinion should hold off judgment until there is a judgment,” Mr. Kelly said.

The allegations are coming at a time of raised awareness of violence and abuse against women, the #MeToo movement and following a national inquiry into missing and murdered women, Mr. Kelly said.

Complaints need to be taken seriously and investigated properly, and if there has been criminal conduct, it needs to be treated accordingly, Mr. Kelly said.

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Bernie Williams, a women’s advocate who testified at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2018, said it can be difficult for First Nations women to report alleged abuse, especially if they live in small communities.

“Whoever this person who has come forward 40 years after the fact ... that takes a lot of courage,” said Ms. Williams, who is based in Vancouver.

In a statement, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said it was disappointed to learn of the allegations and encourages victims of sexual abuse to come forward so their reports can be addressed.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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