A Messy Triumph for Democracy

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

After ten long years of heavy-handed rule, the people of Norway House Cree Nation are on a new path, perhaps to a true democracy.

I am at my home reserve to take in the band election on March 16. With former chief Ron Evans elevated to Grand Chief, the leadership is up for grabs. Dissident band councillor Marcel Balfour and acting chief Fred Muskego are the main contenders. I know this election will be a close one to call. Many here are hoping for changes in the band council.

My people have forewarned me that this contest is even dirtier than previous elections. As a witness to those messy affairs, I find that hard to fathom. Prior to arriving, I receive a frantic call from one of the elders. “Can you please stay with Marcel Balfour,” she pleads, “there are rumours they are planning to have him beat up.”

Past events mean these cannot be considered idle threats. Insisting on transparency and accountability on the council, Balfour lost his salary and his office, band agents seized his home computer, and he was arrested when he vigorously defended his rights. Balfour recently won two important court cases against his fellow council members, but they refused to obey the rulings and now face contempt-of-court charges. There are hard feelings.

Arriving in Norway House, I am greeted by an unusual sight. Late at night, a hydro employee rigged out with spurs is climbing a pole and nailing up campaign posters for the incumbent chief. Only in Norway House, I mutter, and wonder if the utility knows its employee is participating in what people are referring to as the battle of the telephone poles.

On Wednesday, March 15, one day before the vote, the talk among friends and acquaintances is all about who may win the election. It turns out the old Northern store building has been stocked up with new furniture and appliances, and band members have been hauling things home all day. “Didn’t chief Louis Stevenson just use the same election ploy over at Peguis?” they joked. “Nah, Indian Affairs said it wasn’t vote-buying, so there!”

The reports expand: “Band members have been coming out of the office all day with money!” someone remarks. “Now is the time to get money from them,” another says. “After all it is our money, anyway.” This, I remember, has been going on for many past elections here. Nor do I find it unusual to discover the tires on my car have been slashed.

As I arrive at the polling station on election day, scrutineers come up and tell me an incumbent councillor brought in four intoxicated people to vote and an incumbent’s wife delivered more. At supper, some band employees join me to eat. At band staff meetings the day before the election, they say, managers told us that if Marcel Balfour gets elected he will fire all the staff, “So you should know who not to vote for.” Many are fearing for their jobs.

Another reports that staff at University College of the North in Norway House had received a memo: “Take 10 people to vote and receive one half-day off with pay. Deliver 20 people and receive one day off with pay, more than 20 one-and-a-half days or more off with pay.”

Someone I barely know brings me a letter given to her by an incumbent band councillor the day before. Signed by a quorum of council and predated to February 21, it informs her that she is to receive a new mobile home. The council member said she and her family members should vote them back in to office, she relates, and then once the new money comes in April she will be able to pick up money for furnishings for the trailer. I am told many similar letters were delivered the same day.

The desperation to hang onto power is quite evident. Norway House Cree Nation is under band custom, which means we develop our own election procedures, the topic of a long debate in the community, as is the overwhelming need for outside observers. Many of the existing rules were developed in isolation by the band council, their lawyers and consultants, some have argued, and do not truly reflect the custom of the band.

Last year,1,100 band members petitioned Indian Affairs to let them revert to the rules in the Indian Act. INAC refused. How do we deal with infractions of election rules? We can appeal to a panel of five band members, mostly composed of relatives and friends appointed by the incumbent council, whose lawyer provides legal advice for the appeal committee. Unsurprisingly, to date no one has successfully appealed an election.

The counting of the ballots starts at 9:30 p.m. and goes through to 10:30 the following morning. The numbers bounce back and forth between Balfour and Muskego all night, the outcome unknown until the last ballots are counted. The final tally is Balfour, 942, Muskego, 903. Marcel Balfour is declared the new Chief of the Norway House Cree Nation.

A young lady sitting next to me says, “I am really scared right now.” “Why?” I ask. “I work for the band,” she replies, “and we were told Marcel will fire all the staff if he becomes chief.” I explain that that was propaganda and that Marcel will not be firing any staff. Her face brightens up and she smiles as she looks back to the newly elected band council. Other employees wondered how they were going to make their car payments.

This worked well for incumbent council members. With close to 400 band employees, not including their relatives, such fears could bring in enough votes to retain council seats, and many were re-elected with 500 to 600 votes. But Eric Apetagon, the only council member who did not abandon Balfour during his long battle with Evans and his quorum, also won re-election. He walked away with a vote of confidence never before seen in Norway House, more than 1,300 votes.

It will be an uphill battle, but Balfour and Apetagon know the system and are well-positioned to make some fundamental changes in governance at Norway House. Balfour’s long campaign for accountability and transparency has a chance to succeed. It’s a significant victory for the community, which ultimately repudiated the idea that their votes are for sale.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2006 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.