Hope Possible in D.C. and on First Nation Reserves

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

The swearing in of Obama Barack as America’s 44th president is proof anything is possible. But the same hope is possible north of the border as well, including in First Nations reserves long thought unchangeable. In a small northern Manitoba reserve, Norway House Cree Nation (NHCN) located at the north end of Lake Winnipeg, justice has finally been served. On January 19, the Norway House Election Appeal Committee brought down its decision and three band councillors— Mike Muswagon, Langford Saunders and Eliza Clark—are to be removed from office based on corrupt practices during the band’s March 2006 election.

Some background: on March 16, 2006, Norway House held its election, as usual, under band custom rules, which means they are allowed to develop their own election procedures, rather than be required to follow Indian Act election rules. NHCN Election Appeal Committee members are chosen by the incumbent band council, and most were directly related to members of that incumbent council. In fact, Indian Affairs had previously ordered one electoral officer not to become involved in any further band elections.

Following the 2006 election, band members filed appeals against the election of the three councillors, based on 95 letters they signed and delivered days before the election promising electors new homes or trailers, in addition to delivering some $40,000 worth of new furniture and appliances. Initially, however, the Election Appeals Committee denied the appeal based on the fact that there were no witnesses. Band members claim there were a number of witnesses; they were simply afraid to come forward.

Band members then applied to the Federal Court for a judicial review and won. In October, 2008, Judge Eleanor R. Dawson found that members of the Norway House Appeal Committee had erred in law and sent their decision back to them to redetermine whether the councillors should be removed, in accordance with the court’s reasons and directions.

The committee was to consider a Federal Court decision which current Norway House Chief Marcel Balfour won when elected Councillor in 2006. At that time, the court found that Eliza Clarke, Mike Muswagon and Langford Saunders, along with former councillor Fred Muskego and former Norway House Chief (now Assembly of Manitoba Chief’s Grand Chief) Ron Evans, all engaged in unlawful conduct, influence peddling and blackmail against Balfour.

With the recent redetermination that the three councillors’ actions did constitute corrupt practice, their positions will be considered vacant and a by-election called. Regarding the decision, Chief Balfour says, “It is clear: unlawful conduct, influence peddling, blackmail and now corrupt practice in elections have no place in a free and democratic society.”

Other events on this leadership-troubled reserve include a band meeting in 2007 at which band members requested an audit of the band’s affairs; that same weekend the band building containing almost all financial documents burned to the ground. In another incident, a lawyer who was not involved with the election appeal paid the legal fees for the three councillors facing corruption charges. Meanwhile, band members who appealed the 2006 election have been fired from their jobs or unreasonably disciplined, resulting in loss of wages.

This is just one example of corrupt band elections which continue to be a major problem affecting far too many native reserves across Canada. Since political power and control of band finances can become very intoxicating, on-reserve election corruption is rampant. Of those who experience the euphoria of leading their people, some decide to do whatever it takes to remain in office, including election fraud of the worst kind — consequences be damned.

This does not reflect all reserves; many hold accountable and transparent elections where election corruption appears nonexistent and any candidates who attempt to buy their way into office are quickly exposed and dealt with. However, for Norway House, election controversy has been on the radar for much of the past ten years.

Since the ballot boxes appear to favour those already in power, to whom do the people who want justice for their people turn? In these circumstances they are alone, under-represented by the powers that be: tribal councils and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Their mantra appears to be: “Don’t rock the boat!” The “white man’s” courts may be the only solution for those with pockets deep enough to challenge a band council whose band-funded finances for defending their positions appear limitless. It certainly worked for Norway House!

Elections on far too many First Nations are mired in corrupt practices. For reserves such as Norway House, it has taken three long years to finally see justice served. First Nations deserve better. Solid rules must be implemented to govern band elections. For those with valid concerns, the people should be able to request that qualified outside observers be brought in to monitor these elections.

Most importantly, Robert Nault’s proposed Governance Act–which is merely dormant, not dead–should be resurrected. That Act, against which chiefs nation-wide fought so vigorously, would finally ensure accountable and transparent governance on our reserves. If change can come to Washington D.C. and to Norway House, Surely it can come to legislation in Ottawa.