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Three Buffalo Point women plead guilty over entering band offices

Fourth expected to plead guilty at separate appearance

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Three of four women from Buffalo Point charged with breaching a court order pleaded guilty today and the fourth is expected to enter her guilty plea in March after a court appearance in Steinbach today.

The four, led by 82-year-old Helen Cobiness, included her two granddaughters, Kari Cobiness, 21, and Brittany Cobiness, 20, and their fellow band member Andrea Colette Camp, 54.

For all four women from Buffalo Point First Nation, the decision last fall to march into their First Nation's government offices and ask for answers about their chief who faces extortion charges, broke the law.

All four freely admit they violated an injunction for doing what most people take for granted: Walking into their town hall and asking for information.

Kari Cobiness, 21, will enter her plea in a separate court appearance March 13. The court stayed a handful of charges against the women, so that each one pleaded guilty to a single charge of entering their band offices. The court ordered a Gladue report to assist with sentencing. Their next court date together is May 15.

The visit to the band offices on the tiny Ojibway First Nation near the Manitoba-Minnesota border violated a court injunction that the chief, John Thunder, had obtained against them and other band members a year earlier. A band office functions like a town hall.

The four women were charged last October with violating a court-ordered injunction that Thunder obtained against band members.

The injunction dates back a year, after a separate dispute last winter. In it, band members were barred from entering band offices and all public places on the reserve.

John Thunder, the recognized hereditary chief of Buffalo Point, faces extortion charges in connection with threats made to Sen. Don Plett. His family is among hundreds of non-native cottagers embroiled in a long-running dispute with Thunder over property taxes at Buffalo Point. Court dates for the extortion case have so far been administrative hearings.

Thunder’s at odds with many people in his community over land use and the exercise of democracy on the reserve. The injunction followed on the heels of a six-week occupation in 2012 that band members staged to press for democratic elections at Buffalo Point.

Chiefs in the Southern Chiefs Organization are said to be watching the proceedings closely and some are said to support the women, not the chief.

Thunder's extortion charge last October followed an alleged attempt to interfere with a lawsuit over the property taxes levied against non-native cottagers. The women had said at the time they walked into the band offices to get details on why their chief had been arrested.

Instead, they were arrested for violating the injunction.

The women's lawyer Norman Boudreau asked the court for a Gladue report for his clients. Most often mistaken as a "get-out-of jail free" card because of the case it’s based on, a Gladue report is a pre-sentence report that assists the court in determining sentences for offenders with an aboriginal background.

Provincial Court Judge Kelly Moar agreed and ordered the report.

A Gladue report takes into account circumstances that face aboriginal people and its effectiveness is mostly with minor cases, and less so with more serious offences, when courts tend to give added weight to the twin judicial principles of the protection of the public and deterrence.

This may be among one of the few cases with a Gladue component to involve grievances against a hereditary aboriginal chief.

In 1999, an aboriginal woman named Jamie Gladue had a landmark case before the Supreme Court, which ruled there were far too many aboriginal people sent to jail. The ruling recognized that aboriginal people face systemic racism in Canada, particularly in the criminal justice system.


Updated on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 1:36 PM CST: Updates with full writethru

9:53 PM: Corrects year of band members' six-week occupation that prompted the injunction to 2012; fixes typos.

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