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Brandon Gabriel, a Kwantlen First Nation artist is seen here on March 14, 2019 in the area of a former Kwantlen First Nation village site in what is now known as New Westminster, British Columbia.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The chief and councillors of B.C.'s Kwantlen First Nation have responded to a petition challenging their leadership, saying they are willing to work with members to develop a new governance code.

The band’s proposal, outlined in a March 14 letter to Kwantlen members, followed a petition submitted earlier this month that demanded changes to how the band was run.

Now that the band has responded, the group that submitted the petition plans to ask the federal government to monitor the process of developing a new governance code, said Robert Jago, a writer and Kwantlen First Nation member who is a spokesman for the group. The band operates under a hereditary chief and council. Kwantlen members have made several attempts over the past 40 years to replace those positions with elected officials, but those attempts have failed, Mr. Jago said.

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“We feel that [Indigenous Services Canada] has the obligation to do this, as the band has no amendment rules for its governance, and absent those, the ministry should insist that their rules apply,” he said recently in an e-mail.

“Those rules … will ensure off-reserve members are included, and will provide us with a neutral mediator.”

Asked about such oversight, however, Ottawa said it has no plans to get involved.

“Kwantlen First Nation is recognized as having a custom electoral system and has developed and implemented its own custom election rules,” Indigenous Services spokeswoman Jane Deeks said Sunday in an e-mail. Hereditary selection processes fall under custom codes.

“Given this electoral independence, the department does not play any role in establishing procedures or in playing an oversight function in elections for this First Nation,” she added.

The dispute highlights complexities and challenges of First Nation governance, including concerns about accountability. The group behind the petition says Kwantlen has no written governance rules and that the lack of such rules has resulted in power being held by only a few people, including Chief Marilyn Gabriel, who’s been in that position since 1993.

The petition caused rifts in the Kwantlen First Nation, which has a registered population of 299 people and seven reserves, the largest of which is 191-hectare McMillan Island on the Fraser River.

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Brandon Gabriel, a Kwantlen First Nation member currently living on Vancouver Island, was part of the group supporting the petition. He is a nephew of the current chief.

“I want to see a more accountable form of government,” Mr. Gabriel said last week in an interview.

The chief and councillor Tumia Knott declined an interview request.

Under the Indian Act, First Nations can opt out of regulations to follow a custom or hereditary leadership selection system. There are 618 First Nations in Canada; as of March 2018, 358 of those were under a custom/hereditary system, according to Indigenous Services.

While most of those “custom bands” have developed procedures to handle elections, about 100 were brought under that process without having rules in place and 20 have no elected positions of any kind, Mr. Jago said.

Without written policies, it’s difficult or impossible to challenge alleged abuses in court, he adds.

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“That’s the policy gap. There’s nothing we can legally do. It’s a political situation. If we can’t solve it politically with our chief, the whole system has to fall apart before Ottawa will step in,” he said.

Under federal legislation, the minister for Indigenous Services can order a First Nation operating under a custom system to hold an election.

The last time that happened was in 2010, when Ottawa brought the Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation in Quebec under the Indian Act election system after a dispute over a custom code.

Across Canada, First Nations are looking at ways to restore or revitalize leadership and governance systems disrupted by the Indian Act, says Val Napoleon, the Law Foundation Professor of Aboriginal Justice and Governance at the University of Victoria.

“The problem with the Indian Act system and the setting up of bands under that act … is that those are small communities that are part of a larger people. [That system] fractured the larger legal order under which historic leadership and law and systems of accountability existed,” Ms. Napoleon said.

“So you have small groups of people attempting to manage their affairs the best way they can under a terrible system."

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