‘Enough is enough:’ Court rulings stack up against band council

This is how judges have described a three-member band council of a small First Nation in British Columbia over the last four years when it comes to its handling of band membership and finances.





“Purposefully repugnant”

“Motivated by their own self-interest”

And it’s all squarely directed at sisters Chief Norma Webb and Coun. Victoria Peters, who have had control of Peters First Nation band council since 2007.

“They’re seeing them in court, making these crazy arguments that have no standing and are just wasting the court’s time,” said Andrew Genaille, a long-time band member, who successfully sued the sisters for breaching their fiduciary duty to the band in 2022.

Peters is a small community of 15 homes with about 50 electors.

Everyone is related and bitterly divided.

Just not evenly.

The repeated unlawful denial of membership has effectively kept Norma and Victoria in power.

It’s a story APTN began following in early 2017.

We reported on the membership issues happening in the community and courts.

We followed the money and opened the books uncovering that of the money doled out to membership in 2013 and 2014 more than 90 per cent went to those who voted to keep the sisters in power during a time when elections were decided by a handful of votes.

The small elector pool would be larger if the sisters didn’t deny membership to 65 people in 2012, who have status through Peters, but are known as affiliates.

Affiliates can’t vote in elections and have no legal rights to land.

Norma and Victoria told the Federal Court of Canada in 2017 they denied membership to these people in part because they were afraid of three things.

Increasing the number of eligible voters.

“This would effectively double the current voting membership and increase the total members by approximately 33 per cent. This would almost certainly have a dramatic effect on the governance of Peters,” they said.

Sharing land.

“Those people would be a great burden to Peters who has very limited resources and no land for them to live on,” said Victoria, in an affidavit.

And sharing money.

“It would mean that any monies received from the use of Peters reserve lands, such as the Trans Mountain pipeline, would have to be shared with a large [number] of people who do not live on, and have no, or very little, connection to the reserve,” they said.

But what the sisters don’t seem to grasp is their rejection of the affiliates led to the cause of their exiled family’s continued disconnection, courts have ruled.

Eva May Nelson, with her son, Lenard, in a photo shortly before her death. Lenard passed away a couple years later. Both were denied membership to Peters First Nation despite Eva being born on the reserve in 1933. Photo: Submitted.

Just look at Eva May Nelson.

Eva died as an affiliate even though she was born on the reserve in 1933.

Her father was also once the chief.

It’s hard to imagine anyone belonging to Peters more than Eva and her family.

But Eva passed away in 2015, two years after her was membership denied.

Eva’s son, Lenard, passed a few years later.

Her other two children remain in exile.

“[Eva’s] birth certificate says the Indian name of the reserve [Squawtits]. She’s not recognized as an Elder. Her family is not recognized. Her kids aren’t recognized. Nobody in their family is a member of the band,” said Samantha Peters, who tried to help Eva become a member.

This undated photos shows Eva May Nelson as a youth outside of her former home in Peters First Nation. Photo: Submitted.

Both Eva and Lenard died with next to nothing to their name.

“There’s all kinds of things that are available to them; to these individual families that potentially could make their life better if they were only accepted, right?” said Samantha.

Samantha has been a member since birth and lives in the home her late mother built in the community. She’s the one who gathered the names of 65 people, documented their connection to Peters and went to Norma and Victoria with all her evidence.

After each one was rejected, Samantha hired a lawyer, spending $50,000 of her own money, to help the exiled family.

Karey Brooks, of JFK Law in Vancouver, eventually directed her focus on three affiliates: Guy Peters, Amber Ragan and Brandon Engstrom.

It took several court rulings, as Norma and Victoria exhausted every legal appeal they had, including a rejected appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, before those affiliates became members.

As the cases progressed, the judges began seeing through council’s argument, which was basically these people needed to apply to be members before they turned 18, despite the band’s membership code saying they just need to be a natural child of a member, which Guy, Brandon and Amber were. People also qualified if they were on the list prior to Peters taking it over, which Guy was as well.

In 2018, the Federal Court found the rejected membership applications were “unreasonable and procedurally unfair.”

In 2020, the court was clearer saying “council has acted unlawfully, unfairly and in bad faith.”

Then in 2023, in the case of Guy Peters, Justice Paul Favel makes it clear.

“The underlying application is one of ongoing, abusive, vexatious and bad faith conduct on the part of PFN. PFN denied the applicant’s membership entitlement for years by refusing him due process and fair decision-making, by refusing to adhere to this court’s orders, by refusing reasonable offers of settlement and repeated requests to consider the decisions in light of the one unavoidable conclusion: that the applicant is, was and always has been a member of PFN.”

But it’s a learned trait.

Victoria was first elected to council in 1988, a year after Peters took over its membership list when Canada amended Section 10 of the Indian Act over band membership with Bill C-31.

The change was in response to a historic court ruling that found First Nation women, and their descendants, who previously lost their status for such things as marrying a non-status person, could have it back.

It’s well established that stripping status was part of Canada’s attempt to rid itself of its “Indian problem.”

This happened under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Progressive Conservative government.

Chiefs were up in arms knowing the ruling was going to result in a flood of people applying for membership.

Mulroney was forced to do something

So, his government offered a solution.

Band councils could apply to self-govern their membership and if Canada approved a membership code the band’s code would become law and Canada would stay out of it.

But it left no recourse for those who felt a band council wasn’t lawfully following their code.

To date, about 230 bands have created their own code. Peters is one of several that have been challenged in court over their handling of the code.

Peters band members felt the effect immediately.

The chief at the time, the late Frank Peters, removed 28 people from the membership list as soon as he got control — individuals who had been approved by what was known then as Indian Affairs.

Samantha Peters, left, with her late mother, Roberta. Photo: Submitted.

First, Samantha’s late grandmother, Minnie Peters, wrote Indian Affairs in 1990 pleading with them to intervene.

“I am writing to you as my last resort,” Minnie wrote the former Indian Affairs minister Pierre Cadieux on Jan. 4, 1990.

“Bill C-31 has unfortunately provided the opportunity through Section 10 for what is a virtual dictatorship to become a legal and permanent entity.”

She went on to say, “the chief is accountable to no one and can maintain his power through intimidation, the control of information and the manipulation of resources.”

In her letter, Minnie said Frank didn’t hold council meetings and also gave his daughter membership even though Minnie believed she was a Bill C-31 applicant, while refusing to accept others.

That daughter is Frances Genaille, Andrew’s mother.

Frances worked in the band office for decades right up until she was fired and right about when Andrew sued his cousins, Norma and Victoria, for breaching their fiduciary duty as councillors to the band.

“That basically means the band revenue belongs to the membership and the band council, as fiduciaries, their obligation is to protect that money and use that money in the best interests of the members themselves. So not for like the use of the band council paying themselves and doing whatever they want with it because it is not legally their money,” he said.

It hasn’t been easy for Andrew.

It’s not just that he spent $250,000 of his own money on legal fees, but he also briefly worked for council – he was hired to examine the 65 applicants in 2013 – and he said he’s the godfather to Victoria’s children.

His lawsuit largely focused on the millions of dollars Peters First Nation has received from the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion beginning in 2014.

Peters is one of just a few First Nations where the pipeline runs through reserve lands.

“We knew a lot of discrepancies were happening during the Trans Mountain pipeline and so that became our main focus where, as the evidence collected, chief and council were writing blank cheques for themselves and paying themselves for meetings. You know, bonuses and everything else. That became our focus,” said Andrew.

APTN reported on those bonuses in 2017.

We obtained emails showing council consulted with a lawyer on what to call payments to themselves taken from the pipeline money.

But Andrew knew that was just the tip of the iceberg and had already filed lawsuit in late 2016.

In 2022, he won.

Coun. Victoria Peters, left, with her sister, Chief Norma Webb. Source: Facebook.

“Chief Webb demonstrated very little understanding or knowledge of program details and was often unable to explain why she was paid pursuant to various programs. I am satisfied that Chief Webb generally signed cheques as directed by Victoria Peters, and she sometimes, if not often, signed blank cheques at Victoria Peters’ request,” wrote Justice Julianne Lamb, in her ruling.

“Victoria Peters controlled how band funds were actually disbursed. Only Victoria Peters and Chief Webb had cheque-signing authority on band bank accounts.”

Lamb found that Victoria had at least six band jobs, including health director, band manager, bookkeeper and social worker.

“She actually hired herself for job positions and then those job positions hired herself for like being her assistant to that job or being the underling that works for that manager,” said Andrew.

Lamb wrote she was concerned that Victoria, Norma and former councillor Leanne Peters, who were all named as defendants, worked together to get their stories straight before testifying.

“The defendants repeatedly testified about what they did or observed collectively rather than recounting their personal actions or observations,” said Lamb. “I am concerned that the defendants discussed their anticipated evidence and collaborated to offer consistent stories.”

All three repeatedly claimed they couldn’t answer questions because Andrew, or his mom, had stolen documents from the band office.

“However, Victoria Peters could not explain the lack of supporting documentation for expenditures made after Frances Genaille’s employment was terminated in December 2016: There is no reason why Frances Genaille would possess band documents created after she was no longer employed by the band,” said Lamb.

“Even before documents allegedly went missing, the defendants were not diligent about keeping supporting documents for expenses.”

They also testified that they watched surveillance video footage that they claimed proved that Andrew stole documents from the band office.

“However, the surveillance video has never been disclosed … I remain skeptical that the video ever existed,” said Lamb.

Lamb ordered that Victoria, Norma and Leanne pay punitive damages of $85,000 because their actions were “purposefully repugnant to the [band’s] best interests” and they were “motivated by their own self-interest.”

She also ordered a disgorgement of meeting fees, honoraria and expenses they paid themselves from the pipeline money.

“They now have to pay all the money that they paid themselves back,” said Andrew.

Council appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which unanimously upheld Lamb’s ruling.

“We argued on Monday and we had our ruling on Friday morning,” said Andrew.

The tally of expenses still hasn’t been provided to the courts by Victoria and Norma.

While that case focused on the band’s own revenue, APTN also reported on council’s questionable use of federal funds in 2017.

Peters’ financial ledgers revealed, among other things, large portions of federal money went to Victoria.

It sparked a financial review that was carried out by KPMG.

Seamus O’Regan, former Indigenous Services minister, wrote Andrew about the review into “alleged embezzlement” in an Aug. 2, 2019 letter.

“The final report identified ineligible and unsupported expenditures,” wrote O’Regan. “The department is working with the First Nation to recover the funds.”

APTN confirmed that KPMG found ineligible nearly $370,000 in unsupported or ineligible expenditures between 2013-2015.

That’s almost as much money council has handed out to membership since 2016 through various financial disbursements.

Just last December, before the latest election, council disbursed another $20,000 to each band member.

Council responded late Friday, after this story was published, saying the $20,000 was a Christmas bonus, which it has been giving out for the last five years. It hasn’t responded to follow-up questions from APTN.

The sisters were both re-elected and by a wider margin than in the years past, despite all the court rulings.

A photo of the late Edward Peters sits between his daughter, Leah, and Darryl Kipp, who is helping Edward’s estate continue on with his human rights complaint. Photo: Kenneth Jackson/APTN.

That’s in part because Elders keep passing away, like Edward Peters and his brother Robert. Both historically voted against council and told APTN they wanted to make things fair for everyone.

“Every time I go to a meeting, I always tell them I just like to see it, I want it to be fair. I want everybody to have a chance at life, you know, it’s got to be fair,” Edward told APTN in 2017, two years before his death.

“Just greed, just got to be greed. They want to keep the membership the way it is, so they got control. We don’t have a chance with them.”

His daughter, Leah, said not a lot angered her father, but this council did.

“I think it’s because it made him feel helpless. He couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t. They had complete control. He couldn’t do anything,” she said.

Before Edward passed, he filed a human rights complaint against Norma and Victoria for discrimination.

His fight for fairness lives on, at least in part, as the tribunal allowed his estate to carry on the complaint.

None of Edward’s children, or his wife, was ever accepted as members to Peters.

It’s not like Leah and her family are strangers. She said she lived there for the first 17 years of her life.

She caught fish there.

She ate the blackberries.

The land and water were hers.

“We used to disappear for hours. Mom and dad never worried. They knew where we were. We had a dog. We’d walk down the end of reserve to visit our cousins. We’d have sleepovers. It was just home. It was just safe,” she said.

“That’s my home. I may live [on the other side of the Fraser River] but that’s my home. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I lived my entire life. When I die, that’s where I’m going to be buried with my dad, my grandparents. It’s just it’s our legacy.”

In the most recent ruling against Peters band council, Federal Court Judge William Pentney said on Jan. 24 that Norma and Victoria didn’t have “clean hands.”

The sisters had sought equitable relief to delay paying four Elders more than $1 million, as ordered by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, until their request for judicial review of the tribunal’s order last year is heard in Federal Court.

“They have been awarded compensation by the tribunal in recognition of the benefits they have been denied, and because of the pain and suffering they have experienced and in light of the deliberate, continued and wilful nature of the applicant’s discriminatory conduct,” said Pentney.

The tribunal found Norma and Victoria repeatedly rejected the Elders as members in part based on their old age.

The Elders may have their money, which the sisters are trying to claw back, but they were again denied membership after the tribunal ordered Norma and Victoria to reconsider the applications.

“I’m 80 now. How many more years is this going to go on?” said Carol Raymond, one of the four Elders, who got her status back through Bill C-31 after it was stripped away because Canada deemed she married a white man.

Carol Raymond fights tears trying to explain what it means to be excluded from Peters First Nation where her family is buried. Source: Photo: APTN.

Ever since she got her status back her applications for membership have been denied or ignored despite her name appearing on band lists before 1987 or the fact that her father and grandparents are buried in the Peters cemetery.

“I was part of this family and part of this band, and now all these people that are on the band are saying, ‘no, you can’t come back.’ And I’m not even wanting their land. I don’t want their property. I just want my membership, my identity,” she said.

If Canada failed to rid itself of its Indian problem, Peters’ band councils have carried on where Canada left off.

“Enough is enough,” said Pentney.

Contribute Button