Mainstream Politics and the Aboriginal Candidate

For many years, people with First Nations’ ancestry have been vying to win positions in mainstream political circles. But recent expressions of this noble goal have been tainted by the same sort of controversy and incumbency protection that dog many band elections.

In the modern history of such efforts, a few names have become well known. Elijah Harper received widespread recognition for his role in the downfall of the Meech Lake Accord. He still works in a number of capacities for the Liberal Party in Ottawa. Another, Len Marchand, went all the way to the Senate. His son, who practices law in Kamloops, B.C., provided me with many hours of free consultation in my own efforts to better the lives of ordinary aboriginal people and to mitigate the interference of some band councils in their efforts to seek prosperity.

This year, the First Nations came so close to substantive change from Ottawa. What many say would have been a huge stepping stone to improve their lives, Former Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Robert Nault’s First Nations Governance Act, was killed by Paul Martin just before the election, to the quick applause of First Nations’ leaders who do not want to have to be accountable to anyone. Why not endorse the Liberal Party, when the Prime Minister had sent such a clear message to the Chiefs: “It’s business as usual.”

The 2004 federal election differed little in Indian country, with aboriginal candidates moving mostly to the safe fold of the Liberals and the NDP, the parties that have been quick to defend the aboriginal leaders in the past. The difference is that Chiefs are seeking to move into mainsteam politics while still holding onto their positions. Many believe this is not right. There are too many problems on reserves and a Chief is elected to represent the people full-time. Sadly, as happens so many times during band elections, some of these candidates feel they have to abuse the system to achieve their goals.

A snapshot of one of these aboriginal leaders, Norway House Chief Ron Evans, and his bid to win a seat for Paul Martin’s party will illustrate the problem. I am very familiar with Evans. Constantly surrounded by handlers, including lawyers, consultants, speechwriters, special assistants and a publicist, he first ran as a Conservative candidate for Gary Filmon. To boost his profile, Filmon had presented Evans with the “Order of the Buffalo Hunt,” despite complaints from many band members about abuses of human rights he is alleged to have committed. Politics bears no conscience.

The Chief and his wife sat in a local shopping mall and handed out PC memberships to everyone. Many did not know what they were receiving. At the nomination meeting held in a nearby community, those attending were surprised to see so many band members from the Chief’s home reserve walk in. The locals had surmised that their own Chief would be nominated, but they were far outnumbered. One fundraiser for Evans said it was the easiest she had ever done: “All we had to do was to phone companies and corporations that did business with the band and the answer was, ’How much do you need?’” When Former Grand Chief Margaret Swan ran as a provincial Liberal candidate in 1999, she admitted that her own band paid out $5,000.00 for campaign leaflets. Was this wrong? Yes.

In this year’s federal contest, staff on the Chief’s band payroll traveled and campaigned during the election. When the advance polls opened, wives of band councillors hauled members to the polls. As one elder stated, “We were just told you have to come and vote for the Chief.” On election day, many of these same people showed up at polling stations to vote again, only to be told that they had already voted in advance. Many indicated that at that time they were not aware of what they were voting for. All the reserve’s taxis and vans were hired by the band to carry people to the polls. Every business on the reserve felt obligated to post a huge campaign sign bearing Evans’ name. Other Chiefs within the riding gave their fellow the red carpet treatment and provided escorts to accompany him in door–to-door campaigning.

Was this a fair plying field? No. That’s why many believe that a Chief should have to resign his position if he or she is to enter a political race for another job. Evans came within 200 votes of winning the seat in the 1999 provincial election, where Filmon’s Tories funded aboriginal candidates in order to split the vote. Consequently, some top Tories were charged.

In the 2004 Federal election, the same Chief who wanted to be a Tory became the Liberal candidate in the riding, which encompasses most of Northern Manitoba and contains 32 First Nations’ communities within its boundaries. He did not resign as Chief to run, and even prior to his declaration of candidacy, the same old shenanigans emerged. Party memberships were handed out freely. Some 90 band members traveled to a nearby community to elect officers for the riding at the band’s expense. They assumed control of the riding office. Evans’ special assistant was elected party President and a band councillor elected treasurer, with most of the remaining directors’ seats going to band members. Twenty-two of them traveled to Ottawa for the coronation of Paul Martin as Liberal leader.

As the 2004 campaign turned out, Evans lost to the NDP candidate, Bev Desjarlais. But he and his followers received the red carpet treatment by other First Nations, whose people make up 63% of the population. Things were not right during this election, but who is willing to file a complaint against him? Did Evans understand why all the use of band resources to support his candidacy was wrong when, after all, band elections are much worse?

We need aboriginal representation in Ottawa. But we also need responsible, educated candidates willing to work for the interests of all people in the riding, not just those of aboriginal elites. At the very least, if the candidate is a Chief, he or she must resign their position when they become candidates, whether for Federal or Provincial politics.