Native Elites Try to Stifle the Media

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

A judicial recount in the sprawling northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill has dismissed allegations of vote-rigging by defeated Conservative incumbent Jeremy Harrison, and has confirmed the election of Liberal Gary Merasty as the new Member of Parliament. But the brouhaha had a familiar ring. Do we have a serious democratic deficit in Canada’s First Nations?

Harrison had claimed workers for star candidate Merasty, a prominent local Chief, “were threatening aboriginal voters—that if they didn’t vote Liberal they wouldn’t be getting their [welfare] cheques. We’ve had reports that people told them how to vote, reports of plans to stuff ballot boxes, reports of Liberal pamphlets and signs right in polling stations, in polling booths even.”

The court reduced the margin of victory to 67 votes, and did not comment on very specific charges by Harrison: “Somehow it took 3½ hours to count the last poll and, lo and behold, it was nearly 100 per cent turnout, all of which went Liberal, just enough votes to go over the top. So we’re really concerned. These are the kinds of things that happen in banana republics, not in our country.”

Merasty—who’s had a spectacularly successful career path, and whose academic and personal history could make him a poster child for aboriginal achievement—says the charges were “not only false but insulting to myself. . . .” Since there is no further appeal possible under the law, Harrison will have to feast on sour grapes.

But the case brings to mind recent events in Manitoba, where an election for Chief of the Peguis First Nation was appealed to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the agency supposedly responsible for assuring fair voting on reservations. Candidate Glenn Hudson, who lost to incumbent Chief Louis Stevenson by 29 votes, claimed that the Chief gave band members money, furniture and appliances during the election, and provided lots of proof. An INAC investigator agreed, but found “no evidence it was an act of corruption in connection to the election itself.” The election stood.

“I’m still contemplating legal action against the allegations that were harmful to my reputation,” Stevenson said after he was cleared. “To suggest I have done something illegal or to suggest corruption has been involved are serious accusations.” He attacked his own MP, Selkirk-Interlake’s James Bezan, for raising the issue in Parliament, and said Hudson was “trying to discredit the community” by complaining about the bribes.

These righteous responses reflect a clear pattern of efforts to stifle media coverage of such electoral irregularities and other problems on reservations, a challenge to the bedrock value of free speech, our only means of democratic repair. In Indian country, we are used to being told to keep quiet and not let our problems come out in the press.

Many of us who have ignored this message have faced sanctions and paid a hefty price at the hands of those who regularly manipulate the system for their own purposes. How can we address our problems when the government that oversees reserves fails to act, and when our leaders throw out the charge of racism and trot out lawyers with unlimited access to band funds when we tackle the problems of accountability, human rights, untransparent band elections, nepotism and outright corruption?

Another Manitoba Chief is threatening to mount protests at the Winnipeg’s Asper Jewish Community Campus so the Asper family can hear the “anger” of First Nations. The Aspers’ crime? They own the National Post, a newspaper that has demonstrated considerable courage in reporting on the deplorable conditions on Indian reservations. The Chief calls this the “promotion of hate,” a classic case of blaming the messenger.

One of the Post’s articles the Chief found offensive was published under a pseudonym, probably to protect the native writer from the very real personal consequences she might otherwise face for telling her story. I can testify from personal experience that all the media, including the Post, are extremely wary of publishing the details of democratic and human-rights abuses in First Nations, even when they are accompanied by ample documentation. That’s because they face years of expensive court litigation to defend themselves against the nuisance lawsuits that inevitably follow.

For years, aboriginal media have faced sanctions for simply reporting the news. The flow of advertising dollars from native organizations stops. Native media that comply and print only positive stories are rewarded with purchases of full-page editorials from these organizations.

Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine recently complained to the Winnipeg Free Press for publishing my article about election politics in Manitoba. He said that 96 percent of First Nations meet standards of accountability—a laughable claim not supported by forensic audits—and cited Harvard University research showing that imposed, hierarchical, top-down governance models are unsuitable.

Fontaine missed the school’s meaning. Systems of band governance that feature total power by Chiefs and band councils over every aspect of individual life are a direct replication of the lines of authority that the Harvard Project showed do not work. They are the deformed cousin of the bureaucratic, paternalistic INAC-style structures that Harvard found wanting.

Democratic freedoms and ultimately the prosperity they bestow depend on open flows of information in fair elections. Let’s hope that Gary Merasty, a talented man who will do a fine job of representing his people in Parliament, understands that.

This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press February 22, 2006.