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Judge orders land dispute involving former Alberta chief back to Square 1

Last Updated Oct 11, 2018 at 2:00 pm EDT

Former Blood Tribe Chief Harley Frank gestures from his truck on disputed land near his home near Spring Coulee, Alta. Thursday, July 5, 2018. A federal judge has ordered that a land dispute between two families on Canada's largest First Nation go back to square one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY – A federal judge has sent a land dispute between two families on Canada’s largest First Nation back to Square 1.

Justice Michael Manson did not overturn a decision that transferred land from former Blood Tribe chief Harley Frank to another family.

But in a 29-page ruling, Manson noted that the process used by the Blood Tribe, which included a rejection from an appeal board, wasn’t fair to the Frank family.

“The applicants were denied procedural fairness,” wrote Manson.

“Given the decision that the appeal tribunal’s decision was procedurally unfair, it is not necessary to consider whether the decision was reasonable or not. It would be wrong to go on to speculate what the outcome would otherwise have been.”

The dispute on the Blood reserve, home to 12,500 people in southwestern Alberta, involves 600 hectares of prime agricultural land allocated to the Frank family in 1960.

Although band members can’t own property outright, they can have it allocated to them with the approval of the chief and council.

Frank’s father staked a claim nearly 60 years ago and had two years to make improvements on the undeveloped property near the St. Mary Reservoir.

Earlier this year, Frank was informed that the band’s land dispute panel had awarded all but two hectares of the property to a family with adjacent land. Frank said the decision was based on evidence of a hand-drawn map and was approved by the chief and council.

His request for an appeal was rejected.

Manson ordered the appeal panel to reconsider the case and ordered that the chief and council send it back to the original land panel for a new hearing.

He said ideally no one who took part in the original hearing would be part of the new one. But he also said he couldn’t order that because he has to respect the Blood Tribe’s self-governance.

“It is particularly important that the appeal tribunal, council and the panel engage in a meaningful and impartial reconsideration,” Manson wrote.

Frank’s Calgary lawyer, Peter Leveque, was satisfied with the ruling.

“He went about as far as we could have hoped he would go. He set aside the whole thing, requiring them to start over,” Leveque said.

Frank, 68, was thrilled with the judge’s decision.

“I don’t think I was denied anything, given that the judge or court will only go so far into a First Nations governance jurisdiction,” Frank told The Canadian Press.

“You never get all you want, especially in court, but I’m happy. I feel I poured my heart and soul into this. I think I won the war. Not just the battle.”

Frank hopes the federal government will address the matter of individual land rights in an eventual overhaul of the Indian Act.

“What’s still outstanding is do Indians have property rights? It’s a step forward and maybe this will be the first step for this to be addressed.”

There was no immediate response from the Blood band.

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter