I’ve never voted in a First Nations election. Chances are that I never will. I’m a registered member of an Indian band and as a card carrying Treaty Indian I have the right to vote but it’s never been something I’ve been motivated to do. I’ve never voted in a federal election either so it’s not like I’m being discriminating. Maybe I’ve seen too much in 30 years as a native journalist. Perhaps I’ve grown more jaded than I sometimes realize, but casting a vote for a chief or a band council seems hugely counterproductive. Because you don’t need qualifications to be a native politico. You just need to know people.
With a handful of notable exceptions, First Nations communities are run like tiny fiefdoms. The elected chief and his/her extended family become ensconced in positions of power and influence. They become the first to draw pay cheques. They become first on the list for housing. Nepotism has become as much an Indian word as self-government in band offices across the country.
I remember when my cousin became chief of my mother’s reserve. He had no qualifications or experience and when he told me he was running for chief I was astounded. To me, leading a group of people forward required far more than the limited small group leadership my cousin had. He understood nothing of economics, financial management, parliamentary process or the mechanics of federalism.
Yet he ran and was elected. His extended family was one of the largest on the reserve and because he had a reasonable facility with English, the largely Ojibway-speaking electorate took it as a sign of intelligence. It wasn’t. He bought votes with booze. He bought votes with promises of housing and jobs. He conducted a campaign based on glad-handing and won office one-sidedly.
It was a campaign similar to those in Norway House, Man., and Red Pheasant, Sask., recently where Indian Affairs found corrupt practices in the election of chief and council. This was in the early 1990s and I was shocked then to see how easily it was managed. Once he took office the sham began. Cronyism was my cousin’s first mandate. He ensured that he had supporters and relatives in every job and department. He effectively split the social fabric of the reserve. Those on the inside warred constantly with those on the outside and even my mother, a reserve elder, was cast as a miscreant. The community became polarized and there was resentment everywhere.
My cousin really wanted to be seen as a leader. He just didn’t have the tools. He misused spirituality and tradition to frame his decisions. When it came time to act as a community protector, he brought in the Manitoba Warriors, a street gang, to act as security for a peaceful road blockade. When the Warriors demanded a hefty payment for their presence, he dutifully handed it over.
It all ended when a large sum of money disappeared and went unaccounted for. In his new truck, with satellite television in his new house, my cousin rode out the storm. He was never prosecuted, never had to take responsibility and when the crisis was over, he just shrugged his shoulders and moved on.
That scenario and others like it have played out in reserve communities across the country for years. It has taken the better part of 15 years for my mother’s reserve to recover from those days and in a lot of ways recovery is impossible. People are jaded, mistrustful and shell shocked. There are still deep divisions between families, and the chiefs since that time have been ineffective and unable to bring the community closer. I can go there now and feel the dislocation like a breeze off the river.
As long as the Indian Act determines the process of election of chiefs and council the situation is ripe for further exploitations. Elected officials on reserve are not accountable to the community. They are only accountable to the Minister of Indian Affairs who never sets foot on most reserves. When First Nations push for enhanced powers of self-government they need to push for the bastions of good governance too — transparency, accountability and a strict electoral protocol.
Until that happens I will not vote in a reserve election. Until the requirements for chieftainship are held to a higher covenant than how many people you know or can influence, I will not vote. I will not endorse a process that up to now only serves to anchor the Indian Act as the determinant of our politics, just as I will not support a process that allows six hundred and some odd chiefs to elect the Assembly of First Nations’ national leader. There’s too many chiefs and not enough Indians having a say in how the course of our lives is determined.