Like other such exercises in democracy over the last decade, the March, 2006, election of band councillors and Chief for the Norway House Cree Nation was marred by accusations of vote-buying and fraud. The election turned into a watershed event, with a reform candidate, Marcel Balfour, winning the top post and his allies taking two of the six seats on council. But the old guard kept its majority, and two band members who recently tried to appeal that result and expose corrupt practices have paid a very heavy price. They’ve been fired from their jobs.
Norway House Cree Nation (NCN) boasts one of the largest populations on Canadian reserves, and has been promoted by many as one of the most progressive. Yet the former band council has been very successful at quieting a deep, dark secret: corruption, especially when it came to band elections. As voting day approached, the money flowed, with the band’s warehouse filled to the rafters with semi-trailer loads of furniture, and a steady stream of people loading up on gifts right up to election day.
At Peguis First Nation, former Chief Louis Stevenson – finally ousted last spring – used the same ploy for years. Most recognized the strategy for what it was, vote-buying, in clear violation of the rules. Evidence of that in a previous election round was forwarded to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC), to no effect. The Department conceded that the timing of the handouts was inappropriate, but that nothing wrong was done. Stevenson and Ron Evans, longtime NCN Chief and now a Grand Chief, became known as the “Teflon Chiefs.”
Housing and the promise of it, important values because all reserves suffer from shortages, are also used to sway voters. Right up to the moment polls opened in the NCN election, hand-delivered letters signed by a quorum of councillors made their way into the hands of the lucky ones who found they were receiving brand new homes. As many as 70 have been built in election years.
As always, these events have prompted appeals to the appropriate band committee, but not one has ever had any success. The issues raised in past years include:
• A loan of two years’ worth of housing dollars, authorized by both band councils, from Peguis to NCN.
• The hiring of a questionable electoral officer, who supervised many elections at Norway House, and who was eventually asked by INAC not to conduct any more elections on First Nations.
• The appointment of the band council’s executive director as the electoral assistant.
• The wholesale alteration of band membership lists, changed so many times the current list is still in question; in one election year, 392 band members were struck from the eligible voters’ list.
Despite ample documentation, these matters always fail for a simple reason. The band council appoints all five members of the appeal committee, and they are usually direct relatives. The electoral officer now out of favour with INAC used to chair all the hearings, and the Chief’s lawyer provided committee members with legal advice, a resource not provided for complainants.
The appeals committee adjudicating the 2006 election irregularities appears to be no different, and has rejected all appeals. NCN band members unhappy with the corruption are left with no recourse now, except to follow in the footsteps of their counterparts at Pequis who finally prevailed – seek relief through the federal courts, a long, expensive process.
Of the brave band members who dared to come forward and file appeals in Norway House, the two employed with the band might have trouble raising the money. One, the executive director to the vice-chief, was fired by the council members facing charges of corrupt practices. They also suspended another appellant from band employment; they said he neglected his duties by attending the hearings, even though he had every right to be present.
The old regime that retains a majority on council is once again showing the people that they have absolute power and that no one should dare challenge it. The situation is especially stressful for appeal committee members and their families. They know that the wrong decision could mean the end of their careers and very intimidated lives if they remain on the reserve.
NCN citizens know they can’t depend on INAC to resolve such disputes. They also know they can’t depend on the Grand Chief’s office to intervene because band councils elect people to that office and any interference in reserve politics would spell the end of their careers.
The incestuous process that oversees band elections cannot ensure accountability or an end to corrupt practices. In the absence of substantive reform, a lot of people want all appeals forwarded directly to the courts. As one band member clearly stated, “We cannot trust our own people to do the right thing anymore.”