Hamilton

Court rules against Six Nations entrepreneur who says Ontario family law shouldn't apply

In a dispute over child support, Ken Hill said Ontario courts have no jurisdiction in resolving Haudenosaunee family issues. The court disagreed.

Ken Hill says Ontario law has no jurisdiction over Haudensaunee family disputes. The court disagrees

Ken Hill, co-owner of Grand River Enterprises, says Haudenosaunee laws and governance should trump Ontario superior court when it comes to resolving Indigenous family disputes. A judge rejected that this month. (Grand River Enterprises)

An Ontario Superior court judge has rejected the argument of a wealthy Six Nations businessman who says Haudenosaunee laws should trump Ontario family law when it comes to Indigenous families.

Ken Hill, co-owner of the Grand River Enterprises (GRE) cigarette company, is fighting a claim by ex-partner, Brittany Beaver to pay $33,183 per month in child support for their eight-year-old son and $85,701 per month in spousal support.

Beaver also wants to be named a beneficiary of his life insurance policy to make sure he pays.

Hill, who makes $2,109,504 a year income tax-free, argued in the Superior Court hearing that court jurisdiction over the dispute would violate the constitutional rights of Indigenous people.

Haudenosaunee family matters, Hill said, should be resolved "according to the laws and governance of the Haudenosaunee."

Justice Deborah Chappel disagreed. Her Dec. 8 decision, which calls Hill "an extremely successful and wealthy businessman," says he made "broad, general assertions" about Haudenosaunee laws and protocols.

"In the absence of even basic specifics regarding the Haudenosaunee laws and protocols that he is relying on, these assertions are akin to an empty shell."

Her ruling only addresses the constitutional question and does not deal with Beaver's support claims.

Hill is a well-known figure on the Six Nations reserve. He co-owns the largest cigarette company there, and once owned the Brantford Golden Eagles junior B hockey club, the Brantford Expositor says.

He's a former Six Nations band councillor and faced an unsuccessful call for impeachment in 2000, the Expositor says. He's also faced numerous charges related to trafficking contraband cigarettes.

Hill is philanthropic too. Through GRE, he was involved in creating the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation, which provides grants to Indigenous people and organizations. Celebrity supporters include Adam Beach, Kardinal Offishall and Emmanuel Lewis. He's also rubbed elbows with Mike Tyson.

Court documents show Hill dated Beaver from 2008 to 2013. They had a son in 2009. They disagree on whether they ever lived together, but in 2009, Hill bought a Kitchener home where Beaver and their son lived for five years, and paid the property taxes and some utilities and expenses. In 2014, he bought them a $895,000.00 home in Waterloo.

Right to self government

Beaver is asking for spousal and child support retroactive to 2013. To secure that money, Beaver also wants a temporary order designating her as a beneficiary of Hill's life insurance policy.

She's also requesting orders mandating Hill disclose his finances.

Hill, through lawyers Robert Halpern and Katherine Hensel, said Haudenosaunee and the Six Nations have an inherent right to govern themselves, which includes "inter and intra-familial disputes."

That right, Hill said, "has never been ceded by treaty or extinguished by any valid constitutional or other instrument." As such, he said, Ontario's Family Law Act infringes on his rights. 

He also said "Ontario and Canadian legal processes have harmed and continue to harm Haudenosaunee children, families and communities," the ruling says.

Hill says he's already been paying

In court affidavits, Hill and Beaver disagree on whether Haudenosaunee law should apply.

Beaver said while she and her son are Tuscarora, they aren't "culturally Haudenosaunee." They don't have a clan, an Indigenous name from a Clan Mother, she said, or a Long House they regularly attend.

Hill says he's already been paying Beaver anyway. He's paid her about $10,000 per month, the decision reads, although Beaver says prior to 2016, it was inconsistent and she often had to contact him. It became more inconsistent, she says, after she began a new relationship in 2014.

Hill denies that he's been inconsistent, and says he's paid about $4,058 per month in additional expenses for his son on top of that.

Beaver is also requesting $200,000 in legal and accounting fees. Lawyers Harold Niman, Sarah Strathopolous, Joanna Radbord and Scott Byers are representing her.

The constitutional argument around family law isn't unusual, says Jaimie Lickers, who practices Indigenous law as a partner at Gowlings WLG in Hamilton.

'So many competing rights at play'

She's not involved in Hill's case. But speaking generally, she said, those arguments usually follow one of two paths.

One is that First Nations are sovereign and have a right to self government. The other is that provincial laws only apply to First Nations when they are "laws of general application," she said. Otherwise, they're federal matters. How family law fits into that picture is often open to interpretation.

Some First Nations have passed their own laws around family disputes, Lickers said. Six Nations, for example, has its own matrimonial real property law

Such cases get more complicated, she said, when one spouse is a band member and another isn't.

"There are so many competing rights at play," she said, "and so many different perspectives in terms of what's just."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca