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Band offices protesters going home

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Eighteen protesters who occupied the band offices of a tiny First Nation in southeastern Manitoba are going home, their leaders said Monday.

The group, who are members of the Buffalo Point First Nation, spent seven weeks manning the offices by day and patrolling them at night after a dispute over a land referendum in October.

They fear all the reserve land will be turned over to cottages and they’ll be forced out.

The group wants the hereditary chief, John Thunder, removed from office before that can happen but Ottawa has ignored calls for a new election.

Meetings last week with federal aboriginal affairs officials were disappointing, said Elliott Cobiness, a leader of the protesters.

And Thunder won an court extension to an injunction against the protesters.

The real victory for the chief came when the Court of Queen’s Bench agreed with his lawyers that the RCMP had to take action to remove the protesters.

The RCMP notified the protesters they would be arrested today morning if anyone remained at the band office, the leaders said.

"They’re going to be arrested, if they don’t leave," Cobiness said of the group.

But he said they won’t abandon their cause.

"We’re not giving up. We just don’t want to be arrested," Cobiness said.

The other leader, his brother, Ernest Cobiness, led the protest from within the band office. He declared the sit-in a success despite the judge’s ruling. "We did make people aware of what was going on here," Ernest Cobiness said.

A band meeting is called for the reserve’s clubhouse Saturday and Sunday, followed by a meeting with a mediator on Monday. The group hopes to meet with Thunder today.

Buffalo Point, located about 170 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, is better known as a cottage resort for affluent retirees. There are 487 cottages and half a dozen homes and an apartment complex for the 118 band members.

In a November email, Thunder wrote that he and his father, former chief Jim Thunder, developed a multi-million dollar business out of nothing on the reserve.

"Buffalo Point has accumulated about $50 million in assets, businesses, and infrastructure that sits on the peninsula. Out of that we have a $3-million deficit. That is better than most non-aboriginal communities," Thunder wrote.

In November, the Winnipeg chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation challenged the chief over a decision to use $900,000 of band funds to buy cottages. But John Thunder said the cottages are his business he built with assistance from Anishinaabe Maski capital and Southeast Development.

In the email directly to the Free Press, the chief agreed he is in a conflict of interest with this business. But he said the reserve had all been but abandoned when his father started building the development in the 1970s.

Now a plan to raise taxes from cottagers and band members will lead to more development, Thunder wrote.

"Altogether this peninsula has a total of $100 million invested to date and our new master plan is worth $300 million," Thunder said.


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