Enough with Band Election Shenanigans

Policy analyst Joseph Quesnel points out how First Nations are their own worst enemy as their conduct of elections gives Indian Affairs an excuse to intervene. One possible solution is to empower grassroots indigenous people to change their own election regulations.

It’s time to acknowledge the truth. The conduct of indigenous leaders during band elections is the best reason for the federal government to impose band election reforms. They are their own worst enemy. Despite the loud self-government rhetoric, the behaviour of this group of people is often the main reason grassroots band members ask Indian Affairs to impose new election rules.

They are tired of their leaders allowing the same corrupt structures to exist that are creating the same inevitable results every election.

First Nation people want their band chief and council to move on to more important things, like jobs and education and better public services, rather than fight for months over who are the legitimate leaders.

To avoid having rules imposed on them from on high, Indigenous leaders need to finally put the people’s interests first when it comes to election reform.

With another band election in Long Plain First Nation going awry, it appears that band leaders in election mode are up to their old shenanigans.

Apparently defeated candidate Dennis Meeches has filed grievances with the Long Plain First Nation Election Appeal Committee alleging some serious charges about the April 9 band election. The first concerns an out-of-date band members list provided to election officers, causing eligible voters to be left off the list. Second, involves the acceptance of hand-delivered ballots from the United States, banned under the Long Plain Election Act. The other allegations concern the electoral officer, one involving the officer not securing mail-in ballots for three to four days and the last allegation involves the officer not securing the ballots under lock and key, but in simple cardboard boxes.

All of these breaches constitute serious offenses that could potentially throw the results into question. The fact that Meeches lost the vote by only 16 votes only makes the matter that much more serious.

Despite the filing of these grievances by Meeches and two others, the election appeal committee has decided to reject the appeals.

The worst case scenario is to have leaders fighting openly in the community while crucial community issues go unheeded. A case in point is Roseau River First Nation. In that indigenous community, two sets of elections were held and both were invalidated by Indian Affairs. The issue stems from a long standing feud between the elected Indian Act chief and council and the community’s custom council. As a result of this feuding, the community’s funding is diverted towards expensive litigation. In the leadership vacuum, band members are left without an effective government that can implement a long-term vision for the community. It is also very sad that younger band members have to sit and watch while adult indigenous leaders duke it out in a very public way. This is not the vision of band politics that they should be receiving.

The most recent opportunity First Nation leaders had to clean up their electoral act was during the debates surrounding the ill-fated First Nation Governance Act in 2003. This piece of legislation would have required Indian Act bands to come up with credible election codes that would have likely cleaned up many of these problems. While many grassroots members supported these reforms, the band leaders, aided by well-funded allies like the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) opposed the reforms and convinced politicians like Paul Martin that they spoke for the average band member’s concern, when they did not. The problem is First Nation grassroots do not have any lobby or interest group that speaks for them. They are disenfranchised from the political process.

One potential solution to the issue of band election shenanigans is to empower community members to change things. Menno Boldt, author of Surviving as Indians: The Challenge of Self-Government, argued in his section on “leadership” that traditionally, Indian leaders were supposed to be the servants of their people. They were chosen by community consensus and were required to live up to certain ideals of leadership. As a result of some aspects of the Indian Act and the growth of an elite society within indigenous communities, band politics have disenfranchised the lower classes. This structure needs to be broken down. Boldt makes the case that indigenous communities need to engage in real constitution-making that will change the rules, including for band elections. This is not some fake form of public consultation, but a real substantive community meeting, where consensus is sought. Or as Boldt said:

“The most important benefit that could come from a participatory constitution-making process is the empowerment of lower-class Indians. Indian elites today are in a position where they can, if they choose, rule without the popular support of, and accountability to, band/tribal members; that is, they can take advantage of the powerlessness and apathy of the people.”

The problem is that current band leaders have little incentive to give up power in this way. The only way for things to change is for average band members to shake up the system so much that leaders will have to listen. This may mean more sit-ins, marches and demonstrations.

How long do indigenous leaders expect Canadians to simply stand by and watch the charade of band election corruption go on and on without an outcry of public outrage that would force federal politicians to act?

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