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Buffalo Point cottagers win right to appeal taxes

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Property rights extend to the right to appeal unfair taxes on at least one First Nation reserve, a Manitoba court ruled today.

The finding is the latest ruling in a bitter dispute which pit hundreds of non-native cottagers against the last known hereditary aboriginal chief in the province.

The cottagers, represented by a dozen or more families who filed into court today, were elated with their victory over Buffalo Point First Nation and its hereditary chief John Thunder.

The chief, represented by his lawyer, was absent.

Thunder is battling over his tax regime and his right to govern as a hereditary chief on a number of legal fronts. He also faces criminal extortion charges in connection with the tax dispute following a series of emails where he is alleged to have threatened Canadian Senator Don Plett. Plett’s wife owns a cottage at Buffalo Point.

Last month, Thunder was replaced as chief in the first band election in nearly 50 years but he has refused to leave office, claiming he is chief for life.

Buffalo Point is 200 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, a stone’s throw from the international border with Minnesota.

The cottagers dispute centered on new legal powers Thunder won from Ottawa. He received federal approval to impose taxes under new laws streamlineing the authority of First Nations to develop commercial properties outside the Indian Act.

Some of the taxes he imposed in 2012 were six times the existing service charges cottagers paid to lease lots on the First Nation, a practice that dates back decades.

Cottagers fought back in court and Queen’s Bench Justice Rick Saull ruled the right to arbitration applied, based on a lease agreement between the cottagers and the First Nation, and its development arm, made prior to the new tax regime.

Saull gave both sides two weeks to come up with an arbitrator who will have final say on how high the taxes can be set or he will appoint one himself at a court date set for May 28.

It’s not known if Buffalo Point will appeal the ruling. The lawyer for the hereditary chief told the court he would advise his client of the ruling.

Cottagers were clearly delighted with it.

One woman broke into a broad smile and hugged herself as court adjourned. Another gave a thumbs up sign and several said this is the ruling they’ve been waiting for. "It’s nice to have a voice," cottager George Morley said.

Lee Delorme, president of the Buffalo Point Cottager Owners Association handed a reporter a statement as soon as the judge left the room.

It read "We were very pleased to hear Judge Saull render his decision this morning. He has validated the right of Buffalo Point cottage owners under a 2008 agreement to challenge the taxes imposed on them, starting in 2012. We now look forward to working with representatives from the First Nations Tax Commission and the Buffalo Point First Nations to resolve our differences."

The cottagers have three other legal suits in progress, including one in federal court, which challenges the First Nations Tax Commission. Delorme said he hoped this ruling will have an impact on the federal court challenge.

Service charges under the lease agreement cover road maintenance and basic infrastructure, including firefighting services. They are set annually and are currently under $900 a year per cottage. Taxes, on the other hand, average in the $3,000 range, with one couple facing a $6,300 bill.

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