Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Judge rips former Roseau River chief

Upholds band's removal of Nelson from office

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OTTAWA -- A federal judge delivered a scathing rebuke to former Roseau River First Nation chief Terrance Nelson in a ruling Thursday that upholds the 2011 decision by the band to remove Nelson from office.

The finding may bring an end to the political unrest that has dogged Roseau River for more than five years.

Justice James Russell was biting in his ruling, calling the actions of Nelson and former councillors "inexcusable."

"(Roseau River First Nation) has had to face governance disputes in the past, and it is not well-served by people who are prepared to disregard its rules of governance for personal reasons," Russell said. "Such conduct is totally irresponsible and places the viability and well-being of (Roseau River) in jeopardy."

Nelson could not be reached for comment.

Roseau River has been struggling since 2007, when allegations of financial mismanagement led to the federal appointment of a third-party manager. The political battles on the small reserve came to a head in 2011, when the band's Custom Council removed Nelson from office, alleging he refused to comply with a federal audit of the band's finances. Three of the four band councillors were removed a few weeks later.

A byelection in October 2011 elected Ken Henry as chief, and three new councillors.

The Custom Council is made up of one member of each family in Roseau River and is considered the overall authority for the band.

The court ruling says Nelson and the councillors refused to acknowledge their removal, even going so far as to create a fake custom council to undo their removal. Seven of the 16 members of this fake council were relatives of Nelson and the ousted councillors, and none of the members would swear under oath they were actually members of the Custom Council, Russell noted.

For months, Nelson and Henry both tried to work as the band's chief, resulting in massive confusion. Banks froze the band's accounts because it was not certain who had signing authority, and band employees had no idea to whom they were to report.

In February 2012, the Federal Court issued an interim order installing Henry as chief.

Russell upheld that interim order in his ruling Thursday, saying the Custom Council had the authority to remove Nelson and the other councillors from office, and that the byelection electing Henry and the new councillors was valid.

Russell said Nelson and those councillors "demonstrated an utter disregard for (Roseau River First Nation's) constitution and the rule of law." He said the attempt by Nelson and the councillors to create a new custom council was "totally bogus."

Band councillors openly defied Roseau River's constitution when it suited them, he said. They attempted to do "an end run on their own constitution in order to thwart legitimate decisions and retain power. This conduct is inexcusable," the judge said.

Henry said he was pleased with the judge's decision.

"For myself, personally, I thought it was a long time coming," Henry said. "I'm very happy with the decision."

Henry is working with Ottawa to get the third-party manager removed, saying the band council has paid down debt and reorganized the finances so the band is no longer in financial trouble.

Henry will face re-election next month when a regular election is held.

He said at this point, it appears the Custom Council will not allow Nelson to stand as a candidate in the election.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 A18

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