On the Road to Democracy in Indian Country

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

IN a groundbreaking move, a group of northern Manitoba leaders is opening the door to a universal vote for grand chief — a change that could have a profound effect on First Nations.
Manitoba Keewatinook Ininew Okimowin (MKO) plans to extend the vote to every registered adult over the age of 18 in the 30 northern bands that belong to the organization. That is estimated to number one in every three First Nations people north of the 53rd parallel.

Until now, only chiefs and councillors with the 30 member communities could vote for their leader.
“We may finally be on the road to democracy in Indian country,” said Don Sandberg, a member of Norway House First Nation, which is one of the 30 bands in the northern chiefs organization.

Creating a universal ballot is a significant change in aboriginal politics and the repercussions could polarize debate in the aboriginal community, some people warned.

The chiefs’ group — its name refers to northern chiefs — functions as a form of government, representing northern Cree, Oji-Cree and Dene political and social interests in negotiating services from Ottawa and attracting economic opportunity north.

“As we understand it, MKO is the first political organization to allow First Nations the vote for (election of) grand chief,” said MKO’s Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch.

It’s Garrioch’s job that will be up for the universal vote next year, a change he said he not only endorses but actively pushed for in talks with the 30 reserve chiefs. Collectively, the group sets its agenda; the grand chief carries it forward and gets it done.

The MKO measure, in talks for two years, is expected to have a profound effect on First Nation political organizations, from the national Assembly of First Nations to provincial groups, including the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.


“We’ll definitely put pressure with this on other organizations,” Garrioch said. “It’s definitely moving towards democracy, although we’ll still be accountable to the board of directors (for MKO) which is the chiefs.”

Members of MKO sit on both the provincial AMC and the national AFN and they could eventually influence voting structures there as well.

Some observers noted yesterday the change in northern Manitoba may be the beginning of the end of the informal “old boys’ network” that set the political agenda for the country’s aboriginal people on and off reserves.

“I believe this will bring about change to other organizations to finally open the door to (voter representation for) all First Nations people,” said Sandberg who, in addition to being one of the people who will get to vote, also acts as a commentator on aboriginal policy for Manitoba conservative think-tank the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Critics argue just as strongly against extending the vote, insisting it will ultimately undermine the effectiveness of First Nations groups, by pitting conflicting interests and politicians against each other.

In the end, the vote could slow efforts to set up effective aboriginal self-government, critics warned.