Upwards of 20 members of the Buffalo Point First Nation in southeastern Manitoba have been occupying their band office for almost a month, challenging the authority of their non-elected chief.

The sit-in protest began on Oct. 19 and was sparked by a referendum in which a number of band members were not allowed to vote, according to the protesters.


The protest at the Buffalo Point First Nation band office was sparked by a land referendum last month. According to the protesters, some band members were left off the voters' list. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Buffalo Point's hereditary chief had organized the referendum on whether to opt out of sections of the federal Indian Act, allowing the First Nation to control its own land and resources.

Many of the protesters said they were left off the list of voters.

"What we're trying to get here is that we're trying to get elections … so we can choose our leaders," Robert Kakaygeesick, a spokesman for the protesters, told CBC News on Thursday.

Charles Gibbons, another band member who has been occupying the office, said he and others want to get rid of John Thunder, the First Nation's non-aboriginal hereditary chief.

Band members also want more say on the community's future development, Gibbons said.   "These are the things that we are fighting for. We want our rights. Our chief won't let us have these rights," he said.

Chief's father frustrated with protest

The protesters are calling on federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan to end what they call a "dictatorship" on the First Nation.

Thunder was not available for an interview on Thursday, but his father, Jim Thunder, told CBC News he is frustrated with the protesters.

Jim Thunder said when he was chief, he developed a successful marina, cottages, and a golf course and conference centre on the reserve.

"If it wasn't for the hereditary chief, we'd have no road out here, nothing," he said.

When asked how he felt about protesters calling his son a dictator, Jim Thunder said he believes they're wrong.

"They're 100 per cent wrong. He's done more for these people than anything," he said.

"He helps them, but they don't understand. Jealousy is a big word."

Group refuses to leave

Since the sit-in began, the First Nation's leadership has obtained two court injunctions ordering the protesters out of the band office, with the latest one issued by Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench on Thursday.

An RCMP officer came by the occupied band office that afternoon and asked the protesters to comply with the court order. The officer said he would come back on Saturday.

But protester Ernest Cobiness said nobody intends to leave the band office unless Duncan intervenes in the matter.

"If it's a crime for me to stand up for my rights, well then, I guess I'm a criminal," Cobiness said.

"People have been suppressed long enough and denied their basic human rights."

The protesters have already defied a previous injunction ordering them to leave the office by Wednesday night.

"Our elders are sitting there too, and they were willing to get arrested last night," Kakaygeesick said.

"Three or four of the protesters were just laying on the floor; they would have to be carried out."

Duncan could not be reached for comment, but a department official said the First Nation does not hold elections because it operates under a form of self-governance that allows for hereditary chiefs.

Because of that, any leadership disputes would have to be resolved by the First Nation or in the courts, the official said.