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Stoney Nakoda woman sued for $1M by chief, council for alleged defamation over controversial land deal

CBC News with Hilary Young 26 November 2018

A woman from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation is facing a $1-million lawsuit for speaking out against band leadership.

Rachel Snow is being sued by Chief Aaron Young and the entire Chiniki band council. The defamation suit, filed on Oct. 16, seeks general damages in excess of $100,000 for the chief and each of the band’s four councillors, plus an additional $100,000 each for punitive damages.

A proposed land deal on the nation, which is located about 45 minutes west of Calgary, is at the heart of the lawsuit.

The land designation deal proposed earlier this year would have seen 3,000 hectares of designated reserve land commercialized and leased out.

That deal was opposed by Snow and several other band members who shared their opposition regularly on social media. It is those Facebook posts which the Chief and council claim defamed them.

The statement of claim alleges that in a series of September Facebook posts, Snow made libelous statements, including referring to band leadership as a “lying chief and council.”

The claim goes on to allege that Snow accused the chief and council of mishandling nation finances and using the band’s money for personal gain, including paying for weddings.

Snow, who also plans to run in the next band election, says there was nothing wrong with her posts, adding that she was simply criticizing the leadership.

“All I was posting was information and sometimes fair comments,” she said.

“Questioning the accountability, questioning the lack of information and the lack of communication that we have had consistently from chief and council.”

A vote on the land deal failed on Oct. 18, two days after Snow was sued. A total of 511 band members voted in favour of the land designation while 675 voted against it. 

Snow says the lawsuit was meant to “silence the voices of the people,” adding she continues to speak out.

It’s not the first time a band member has been sued for speaking out against a Stoney Nakoda government, which operates under a unique, three-chief system.

Another statement of claim was filed against Greg Twoyoungmen on March 26, alleging that Twoyoungmen had also defamed nation leadership. 

That statement says Twoyoungmen referred to the band leadership as the “Mafia” and accuses the Stoney chiefs and councillors of being “mostly illiterate” and lacking “business acumen.”

Those comments also emerged from a series of online posts revolving around an earlier land designation vote.That suit is asking for $20,000 dollars in damages to be paid to the band. 

Twoyoungmen stands by his comments and has filed a request with Cochrane RCMP for a forensic audit of the band’s finances, alleging mismanagement.

“Our leaders need to be accountable to the people that voted them in but yet they feel entitled not to be accountable and we disagree,” said Twoyoungen.

Twouyoungmen is also a vocal opponent of the Nation’s unique governing system, which he says increases costs and bureaucracy.

The tribe is one Nation but has three separate chiefs and three separate tribal councils made up of the Chiniki, Wesley and Bearspaw bands.

The lawsuits against Snow and Twoyoungmen don’t sit well with some band members like Margaret Rider.

“To sue a nation member, it’s just morally not right,” she said. 

It may not be legal either.

Hilary Young, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick, says that while most governments aren’t allowed to sue individuals for defamation in Canada, First Nations fall into a grey area. However, Young says there are likely still grounds to challenge the defamation suits.

“There is case law in Alberta that says that band councils are government for the purposes of the charter. So at the very least, the charter can be raised,” she says. 

Legal or not, Young says it is dangerous for governments of any stripe to sue their constituents.

“We risk having governments be able to silence their critics with threats of lawsuits, which has really big implications for the functioning of our democracies,” she said.

For their part, the Stoney Nakoda administration and Chiniki Chief Aaron Young, who are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuits, have declined comment.