When Elections Are Rigged, Stop the Money

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

On October 7, 2004, the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan (MNS) swore in its new executive, but there was a hitch. Last spring’s election had not been recognized by the provincial government. In June, amid allegations of election irregularities, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Maynard Sonntag froze more than $400,000 in funding to the MNS and asked Keith Lampard, the province’s chief electoral officer from 1982 to 1993, to review the voting. His action should become a template for future action by the federal government.

The election, held on May 26, was fraught with controversy, including allegations of lost and unsealed ballot boxes. After five days of counting, the Métis election commission declared Robert Doucette the new president, beating Dwayne Roth. Later that same day, the commission declared that Roth, not Doucette, had won the election. Doucette appealed that decision, which was upheld by the commission.

Raymond Laliberte, who was sworn in as treasurer, said the federal government recognized the newly elected executive and that the Province of Saskatchewan should too. “We want to maintain our relationship with the province, . . . not one where we have to come with our hat in our hand and beg for the little bit of money we get from the province” said Laliberte. “We have Métis governance in Saskatchewan. We maintained throughout history that we run our own affairs. The message to the province is… respect our governance and we will do the same.”

The MNS made an important point, that the federal government had not stopped its payments of $1.8 million in this fiscal year. But the implicit message from the Saskatchewan government – that it will fund your organizations if and only when fair and accountable elections are held – is a milestone. The federal government should take notice and follow suit, not by cutting all program funding, just the portion that goes towards the operation of band offices and salaries to the council, at least until an independent arm of the band investigates election irregularities.

Nothing divides a community more than corrupt elections. Ottawa’s past habit – just keep the money flowing, no matter who really won the election – perpetuates such divisions. In Manitoba Métis elections, and those on many First Nations, are just as controversial. Allegations of wrongdoing are commonplace. For some aboriginals, their election to a large organization is not just an honor and a chance to do some good for all their people. They see the huge salaries, almost unlimited budgets for travel and the many other perks that come with the position. Some leaders who have been at the band trough too long have learned how to manipulate elections.

How? They have learned much from the white man’s mainstream political arena. On many First Nations, the next band election is already being planned shortly after the last one. The incumbent Chiefs work together and share information on how to win, and how to work the election procedures act to protect themselves in case appeals are filed.

First Nations are notorious for having far too many people seeking office. A large First Nation may have as many as 50 people seeking the office of band councillor, with 10 to 15 seeking to become Chief. The vote is split in so many directions that most have no chance of winning, yet when nominated they still hope for some miracle and let their names stand. A low number of family and a few close friends may vote for the individual, yet unsurprisingly these same people get nominated election after election.

For the long-time Chief or councillor, this is a dream come true. If these people with no chance are not nominated, their small band of supporters may vote for a candidate who does have a chance. Typically, incumbent office-holders will place die-hard supporters, many of whom are on the band payroll, throughout the nomination hall. They stand ready for instructions to nominate others for council or chief in order to split the main contender’s support further. On one large reserve, the leadership knows from past experience that the magic number they need to win re-election is roughly 350 to 400 votes out of a pool of 2,300 eligible voters.

That is a very easy bar to cross for unscrupulous incumbents who control the band’s purse strings. Before an election, the money starts to flow to the magic number of band members whose votes they need to be re-elected, plus a few more to be on the safe side. Those few who openly campaign and support the incumbent council are rewarded with promises of new homes, free furniture, boats, outboard motors and even cars. Sadly these people cannot see beyond their own greed. They are being bribed with their own money.

A great many are employed by band officials to ensure election victory and they have the band’s funds to back them up. Voters list are commonly manipulated and potential candidates have had their names struck off band membership lists prior to an election. Appeal committee members are appointed by the incumbent council members, many of them blood relatives. Where does one appeal when the process is rigged and the government does not care one way or the other what the outcome is? The money just keeps flowing no matter what happens.

These practices are nothing new to the federal government. They receive many complaints about them after such elections, often accompanied by documented proof. What do they do? Ignore them and congratulate the Chief and council members on being re-elected. Then it’s business as usual. People in the community who have witnessed such wrongdoing and the disregard Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has for it sink further into hopelessness and despair because they know that the wrong people are most likely sitting in their band’s office. Corrupt elections divide family members and friends for some time. Everyone knows who has benefited by supporting questionable leaders, because material rewards like houses and vehicles are very hard to hide.

Hats off to Saskatchewan and Maynard Sonntag, who saw problems with the Métis election and took drastic steps. Perhaps the MNS will their elections cleanly from now on. Will the federal government ever follow suit? When hell freezes over. Robert Nault, Indian Affairs Minister under Jean Chrétien, had the courage to stand up and propose the now-defunct First Nations Governance Act, which included rules to ensure honest band elections. The new Prime Minister, Paul Martin, knowing full well the Chiefs across Canada would be up in arms, killed the bill. He should at least tell the Chiefs that if they rig their elections, their money will stop.