Salt River First Nation chief, suspended for 17 months, wins another court judgment

Toni Heron was elected chief of Salt River First Nation in 2022 but has not had a chance to step into the role after being suspended. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
Toni Heron was elected chief of Salt River First Nation in 2022 but has not had a chance to step into the role after being suspended. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

Salt River First Nation's council can no longer have meetings to keep suspending its chief, a federal court judge has ruled, until the court holds a judicial review of the original suspension.

The ruling, published Thursday, is the third federal court ruling since March in favour of Toni Heron, who was elected in September 2022 as chief of the First Nation in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Heron has been suspended for about 17 and a half months.

Thursday's ruling from Justice Glennys McVeigh ordered an expedited hearing for that judicial review and also awarded $6,000 in costs to Heron.

McVeigh also condemned the council's continued suspensions of Heron even after two other federal rulings in her favour.

"Based on the information before me, this can only be seen as a disregard for the Court's order as it can be labelled subterfuge or duplicity," McVeigh wrote.

Heron's initial suspension came less than a month after she was elected. Since then, councillors have regularly voted to keep that suspension in place.

Coun. Brad Laviolette, one of the councillors behind the efforts to suspend her, has been acting as chief since then.

Reached by phone Friday, Laviolette refused to comment and said he would have to seek council approval to speak publicly.

Heron previously told CBC News she wants to be able to do the work she was elected to do, and pushed for people to voice their opinions about what's been happening.

A long, fraught battle

The fight between Heron and the council has been convoluted.

Initially, council's suspension of Heron coincided with Heron's own efforts to get Laviolette and Coun. Kendra Bourke removed at a meeting of Salt River members.

In January 2023, Heron applied for judicial review of the decision to suspend her.

In August 2023, another federal court judge, Justice Paul Favel, allowed her initial suspension to stand.

On March 12, Favel issued another ruling, dismissing Salt River's request for its own judicial review of Heron's efforts to have Laviolette and Bourke removed. In that ruling, Favel directed that Heron's request for judicial review could proceed. He also awarded her $12,000 in costs, on top of remuneration for the salary she would have received if she hadn't been suspended.

Laviolette and Bourke subsequently called a special meeting to remove Heron as chief.

On April 4, that meeting was blocked by another federal court judge, Justice Christine Pallotta.

Following that, council voted to re-suspend Heron.

The latest from council

Councillors held their latest vote to re-suspend Heron right after Pallotta issued her ruling.

Documents from the federal court show Laviolette, Bourke and councillors Warren Sikyea, Freda Emile and Don Beaulieu voted on April 4 to appeal Pallotta's order and suspend Heron until Aug. 19.

They also voted to have Heron present to them confidentially on April 18, without lawyers present, at which meeting they would be reconsidering her suspension.

Then, on April 9, they wrote a letter to Heron citing 43 questions they wanted her to answer, most related to the authority of members of council.

In that letter, they wrote that by taking the issue to court, Heron had committed "a very, very serious breach of [her] duty as an elected leader."