Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chief faces extortion charge

Buffalo Point leader allegedly tried to interfere in tax suit

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Buffalo Point Chief John Thunder has been charged with extortion in an apparent attempt to interfere with a lawsuit over property taxes levied against non-native cottagers on the First Nation.

The RCMP reported the charges Tuesday and said they launched an investigation into a complaint this summer in the case, which involves hundreds of non-native cottagers on Buffalo Point who sued the First Nation and its land company over property taxes.

Thunder was arrested Tuesday and charged. He was released on a promise to appear in a Winnipeg court Nov. 25.

Thunder is the non-native stepson of a hereditary chief and assumed the chieftainship of the tiny band in the southeast corner of the province near the U.S. border after his stepfather's death. He carried on with the cottage development the former chief started in the 1970s.

The younger Thunder eventually won Ottawa's approval to go ahead with economic development under federal laws for First Nations intended to loosen the tangle of red tape that hampers commercial development on reserve lands. Among other powers, they give First Nations the authority to levy property taxes.

Thunder's attempts to impose property taxes in 2012 quickly ran into trouble.

Before last Christmas, Thunder used the courts to obtain an injunction against band members who staged a sit-in over property taxes at Buffalo Point's band offices.

The occupation lasted nearly two months in a bid to bring attention to band members' objections to many of the same developments that upset cottagers.

Then just after Christmas, cottagers headed to court, too.

They filed a civil suit against the Buffalo Point First Nation and its economic development company, claiming the taxes violated a long-standing lease agreement, dating back decades for some property owners on the reserve.

The first cottages went up in the 1970s, with annual fees that hadn't changed much since then. Most ran in the range of $650. In 2008, a new lease agreement saw rates rise to $876.50, according to the cottagers' statement of claim last January.

Under their own corporate banner, the cottagers formed an association to object to the band's application of taxes, in addition to the stiff new tax rates.

The new taxes added up to as much as $6,000 per year in some cases.

The RCMP, in its brief statement Tuesday, said the Sprague detachment took a complaint on July 2 "over correspondence directed at a federal government official with some level of involvement with the Buffalo Point Cottage Owners Association."

The RCMP's major-crime unit opened an investigation into the correspondence, which it described as from Chief John Thunder to a federal government official.

The correspondence "made an attempt to derail a civil legal proceeding" by the cottagers against the First Nation and its development corporation, the RCMP statement said.

It's not known what action, if any, was taken by the official in response to Thunder's correspondence.

The RCMP, in their statement Tuesday, said the official had no role in the extortion investigation.

That investigation wrapped up earlier this fall.

Since Thunder is a hereditary chief, Ottawa has no authority to remove him from office. Ottawa can remove chiefs and councillors elected under the Indian Act.

Thunder and a senior official with the development corporation could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2013 A3

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Updated on Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 6:49 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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