Corruption and Now Violence Plague a Manitoba First Nation

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Election corruption continues to be a major problem on far too many Canadian reserves. It is rampant because representatives find that controlling band finances and holding political power is very intoxicating. Power and money have led many down a path of no return.

For example, for one troubled Manitoba reserve, election and governance corruption is a problem that now extends beyond past proven fraud to allegations of assault, vandalism and intimidation. That reserve, Norway House Cree Nation needs help.

Many bands hold accountable and transparent elections and those candidates who attempt to buy or fraudulently achieve office are quickly exposed and dealt with. But, for much of the past 10 years, election controversy has been on the radar of Norway House Cree Nation, a reserve with 5,500 on-reserve members at the north end of Lake Winnipeg.

It showed no signs of abating in the last election in 2006, although the reserve turned a corner and elected a new chief who also inherited a huge debt said to be more than $70 million. Unlike the past council, this council fully informs the people about band finances. Accountability and transparency are paramount in the path of new Chief Marcel Balfour and Vice-Chief Eric Apetagon.

Norway’s election appeal committee members are chosen by the incumbent band council and most were directly related to members of the incumbent band council. Questionable electoral officers hired by the incumbent council included a chief electoral officer Indian Affairs had ordered not to be involved in band elections again.

After the 2006 election, four others who had been candidates filed appeals. These were based on incumbents who were re-elected — Eliza Clarke, Mike Muswagon and Langford Saunders; they sent 90 letters days before the election which promised electors new houses or trailers, plus delivery of furniture and appliances.

The reserve’s Elections Appeal Committee (EAC) dismissed the appeal in May 2007 so the appellants sought a federal court judicial review of the decision.

Last August, in response, Judge Eleanor R. Dawson set aside the decision and sent it back to the EAC. The judge required a re-determination based on evidence heard at the judicial review. The judge also instructed the Committee to consider other matters including one of three other federal court decisions that current Chief Marcel Balfour won when he was elected councillor. At that time, the court found Clarke, Muswagon and Saunders, along with former councillor Muskego and former Chief Ron Evans all engaged in unlawful conduct, influence peddling and blackmail against Balfour.

Recently the Committee determined that corrupt practice did occur and removed the three council members responsible.

Other events at this leadership-troubled reserve include a 2007 band meeting in which band members requested an audit of the band’s affairs. That same weekend the band building which contained the housing records and most other financial documents burned to the ground in a fire for which no cause has yet been determined.

Violent physical assaults have plagued Balfour since he returned to his community, first elected as a band councillor and then as chief. As a councillor, Balfour was stripped of his portfolio, his salary reduced so much that his supporters had to help him buy rent and groceries. His cellphone privileges were terminated and access to band finance documents denied. Other council members even attempted to have him removed from his home.

Most recently, shortly after the public announcement of the three councillors being removed from office, someone smashed windows of Balfour’s home. Then Balfour was assaulted in Winnipeg, an event later profiled on Crime Stoppers. Two men approached him, asked if he was Marcel Balfour then assaulted him. A witness set off an alarm, forcing the pair to run. Balfour received stitches to his head.

All these despicable incidents that leave one of their community leaders in fear of the next attack should set off alarm bells within Manitoba tribal councils.

One grand chief who commands respect is Morris Shannacappo of the Manitoba Southern Chiefs’ Organization. Memo to Grand Chief Shannacappo: the Norway House Cree Nation and its chief need help.