Caldwell First Nation in southwestern Ontario must redetermine whether to remove Mary Duckworth as chief using a process that is fair to all parties, a Federal Court judge ruled Thursday.
Duckworth, who was seeking reinstatement as chief, was also awarded $3,000 in legal fees by Justice Ann Marie McDonald.
McDonald ruled "the 2020 decision of the CFN council is set aside and the matter is referred back to council for redetermination after affording Ms. Duckworth appropriate procedural fairness rights."
Interviewed by CBC News, Duckworth said she's "absolutely pleased with the outcome."
"The decision was set aside, so that tells me that the council of Caldwell First Nation did not follow the rule of law."
According to Duckworth's lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, procedural fairness includes notifying Duckworth of any meetings related to her removal and providing her the opportunity to defend herself.
The First Nation has about 360 members and is based in Leamington, with Point Pelee and Pelee Island at "the heart of our ancestral territory," it says on its website.
In September 2020, Duckworth was removed as chief by council members, who alleged she had violated and breached policies. Duckworth filed a judicial review in October.
She appeared before the court to challenge council's decision earlier this month.
At the time, Duckworth was seeking $20,000 in legal fees as well as reinstatement.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, Caldwell First Nation said, "We respect the decision of the court and will engage with Ms. Duckworth and her legal counsel on next steps."
It said it will continue to keep nation members informed when more details are available.
Duckworth blindsided by removal
Though the Federal Court decision doesn't reinstate Duckworth as chief, Marshall said it is "promising."
"Essentially the court took a look at that decision and said, 'This isn't OK, this is not fair,' and when we're dealing with someone who's democratically elected by their people, like Mary Duckworth was, the duty of procedural fairness that is owed to that person is very high," Marshall said.
"We're just very happy ... that she's been vindicated. We knew the decision was wrong and it's great to see that the court made the right decision."
Duckworth became chief in January 2018 with 77 per cent of the vote.
This isn't just a win for Mary Duckworth; this is actually a win for the citizens of Caldwell First Nation. - Mary Duckworth
Five months later, council removed her from the position. Duckworth claimed she questioned various policies, hiring practices and spending.
In a 2019 byelection, Duckworth was voted back in.
But she had told CBC that the tension between her and some members of council, as well as senior administration, didn't change.
It eventually led to Duckworth taking a medical leave of absence — one the rest of council said she never fully explained.
When indicating she'd be returning to work in September, Marshall said Duckworth was blindsided when she was removed as chief.
Moving forward, Marshall said council will need to follow proper procedures if it wishes to once again remove Duckworth.
While there's no way for the court to oversee the next decision to ensure procedural fairness, Marshall said this issue can go back to court if Duckworth feels the process was still unfair.
Meanwhile, Duckworth said she has not heard from the council, but has reached out asking them to add her to the next agenda.
"This isn't just a win for Mary Duckworth; this is actually a win for the citizens of Caldwell First Nation," she said.
"We have a rule of law — we are to follow procedures and practices, and treat everyone with respect and fairness."