Non-profit offers legal support to First Nations band members with 'nowhere to turn'
Rob Louie gets about 100 messages every day from band members looking for help
A First Nations man in Fort McMurray has started Canada's first non-profit dedicated to providing legal assistance to band members who want to hold their chief and council accountable.
The Band Members Alliance and Advocacy Association of Canada (BMAAAC), based in Fort McMurray, has been around for two years, but within the last six months the organization has gained significant traction.
The group's mandate is "to advocate on behalf of band members in Canada that are experiencing financial abuse by their chief and council," according to the BMAAAC website. The non-profit offers its services for free.
BMAAAC is headed up by Rob Louie, from the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) First Nation in British Columbia.
Louie created partnerships with lawyers across the country, who have so far taken on 15 cases in federal court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over band councils in Canada.
"I realized that there was a gap in the governance of Indigenous communities," said Louie. "I noticed that when a band member was experiencing either financial abuse or some sort of internal oppression, they had nowhere to turn."
Louie said he gets about 100 messages a day from people across Canada looking for help. He screens those calls and sends select cases to a lawyer.
Louie does have a law degree himself and is studying for his Master's degree in law, but is not currently licensed to practice law. He has applied to regain his status as a lawyer in B.C.
BMAAAC has received about $50,000 in donations over the last year, all of which has been used to pay lawyers, said Louie.
Louie has put in over 300 hours over the last six months into the non-profit, all of it as a volunteer.
The lawyers either work pro bono or at a reduced rate. Currently five lawyers work with BMAAAC, although only one is First Nations. Louie said he would like to see First Nations lawyers step up as allies.
Louie said the issue of band member representation is close to his heart, because in 2012 his uncle took his First Nation to court over misappropriation of funds. He was the litigation strategist on the case.
Louie said left the legal profession because of issues with substance abuse, but he has recently made it to two years of sobriety.
"I do this because part of my recovery is about giving back, because I too had help," said Louie.
He said now looking to get reinstated as a lawyer so he can focus on representing others in court.
Evan Duffy is one of the lawyers helping BMAAAC. He's taken on about half of the non-profit's cases.
Duffy acted as an intervener during a judicial review of a postponed election in Fort Liard, N.W.T.
He said BMAAAC fills an important rule.
"There's not a lot of resources that help band members all across Canada," said Duffy.
Marty Moore, staff lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, is currently taking on a case for BMAAAC.
Moore said people need the ability to seek redress from the court system.
"Without that ability, the essential nature of our government and our democracy and even our freedom is jeopardized," said Moore. "Words on paper, including words on the Charter, aren't worth anything without the ability to assert those rights in a court."
He said all governments need to be accountable, and BMAAAC is the only organization he knows of that is providing this kind of legal access to First Nations.
"We as a legal community, we need to stand up for those that are vulnerable," said Moore. "It's hard to think of a more vulnerable community in Canada."