Manitoba First Nations should heed a recent Senate report on band elections.
The report is called "First Nations elections: The choice is inherently theirs" and was released by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Although there are some cautions about the report, it raised more interesting recommendations than not.
Manitoba, in particular, has had its fair share of band election problems, including high- profile disputes that made it to the Federal Court. One such case involves Roseau River First Nation. This dispute pitted the community’s elected chief and council against a traditional-custom council. In the end, there were even two individuals who claimed to be the legitimately elected chief.
Clearly, Manitoba First Nations need a better electoral system.
Currently, First Nation bands can either adopt the election rules of the Indian Act or they can "revert" to a custom leadership selection system, which is still subject to basic rules of electoral fairness.
The problems recognized by the report’s authors make sense. For example, the imposition of a one-size-fits-all municipal style of governance through the Indian Act is part of the problem. This makes little sense given First Nation governments are responsible for provincial-like responsibilities, such as housing and education. Yes, the Indian Act was intended to subvert traditional tribal forms of governance, including leadership selection, but the answer is not simply to return to traditional systems. Some of those systems are heredity-based and have no resonance in modern society.
The main recommendation of the report is for First Nations to abandon the Indian Act election system and opt for community-designed election codes. While the hope is First Nations regain control over their governance, it could very well be that some bands in Manitoba prefer the Indian Act system, as it works for them. That should be their choice. However, using customary methods would allow bands to adopt appeal processes and rules that reflect local conditions.
One recommendation that would certainly advance First Nations in Manitoba is the idea of an independent elections appeals process.
Currently, indigenous communities in electoral dispute must either go through a lengthy process with Indian and Northern Affairs or they find themselves in court. In both cases, the processes are too lengthy and seen as illegitimate. The report calls for an independent First Nations Electoral Commission and Appeals Tribunal. This is probably the strongest suggestion.
The possibility of using regional electoral appeals bodies, such as one established by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, deserves more exploration.
One other idea that was explored was the current two-year chief and council terms under the Indian Act. Many of the witnesses agreed that this time period did not allow for any meaningful change or strategic direction.
As soon as a chief or councillor is elected, they are immediately thinking about re-election, so the focus is on short-term political gain instead of long-term vision.
Regardless, change must come and this report is the start of a good conversation. Let’s hope it doesn’t just gather dust somewhere.