Senate Seeks To Improve Band Election Process: Report does not show depth of research

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre


It’s hard to decide whether to be happy that senators are addressing a huge problem poisoning reserves, or weep at the ignorance this recent senate report has revealed.

Recently the Aboriginal newspaper Grassroots News featured a column about the Senate report, which included the words: "Canadian Senate’s turn to confront the high profile, hot potato issue."

What’s the hot potato? That’s a no brainer. Band elections, of course.

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples released a report on band elections in mid-May called, “First Nations Elections: The choice is Inherently Theirs.”

And, although the report is flawed, one useful idea does suggest happiness should prevail.

First Nations elections have been a huge problem for years. A full year of hearings determined change is long overdue. No kidding.

Ask many First Nations people who live on reserves how their band elections are conducted. Some of the answers to the questions would be quite informative. Are they transparent? Is vote buying occurring? Are the best people seeking office? Are voter’s lists being manipulated?

Do they trust the electoral officer appointed by their chief and council? Do they trust that no one has tampered with the ballot boxes?

Are dead people on voter lists? Are those dead people recorded as voting? Are all candidates – or only the incumbents – given the names and addresses of off reserve members?

Most times you’d better be prepared to listen for a couple of hours while they relate the shenanigans of those who care nothing for justice or doing the right thing. Often times, instead it is mostly about scrambling to get the best-paying jobs on the reserve and all the attendant perks.

Not all First Nations hold questionable elections. Some reserves could serve as models for democratic election practices. But, corruption occurs and is occasionally reported in the media. At Roseau River, Peguis, Norway House, and Little Saskatchewan, there are reports of deceased voters apparently cast ballots for winning candidates.

The names and addresses of off-reserve voters are usually available to incumbent council members. This way, incumbents are the only ones who know exactly where to go to campaign for these voters, putting new challengers at a disadvantage.

Contesting elections can take years as documents and hearings wind their way through the band process and then the Federal Court. People take sides. Relatives and friends become bitter enemies. Supporters of the losing candidates become have-nots while the supporters of winning candidates reap all the benefits.

The newspaper’s article explained, "The senate’s committee on aboriginal peoples studied the electoral reform question after a full year’s research which included hearings in Manitoba, B.C. and Ottawa."

That seems sensible.

But, the ignorance revealed in the next statements is jarring.

The article said Canadian bands should design their own codes for custom elections, allowing voters to combine traditional and contemporary governance.

The problem is many native bands are already doing this. Many have already reverted to band custom elections as allowed by the Indian act election system. They develop their own constitutions and election codes.

The Grassroots news story went on to say "another proposed and high-priority change would be a switch from holding elections on reserves every two years, to holding elections every four years."

Again, this is already happening. Currently bands holding band custom elections may also switch to four year terms of office and most – including – Norway House Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba – have done so.

This report’s authors should be questioned about their problematic research.

The only new, much-needed and long overdue change that the report proposed is "a streamlined national or at least regional appeals commission should provide oversight to whatever system different communities come up with."

Such a commission would undoubtedly be one of the busiest and soon would have the most overworked and stressed out staff unless improved regulation of band elections is implemented. It must be adequately funded and those appointed to oversee its operations must be independent from political interference by Aboriginal organizations. There must be no possibility of staff being terminated for simply doing their jobs in the best interests of all First Nations people.

The fate of the First Nations University in Saskatchewan provides a clear warning. This is not exactly the same scenario, but it’s worth remembering political interference by native leaders had drastic repercussions for the university, including termination of most of its funding.

The Native elite will no doubt question the need for an oversight commission, saying we Aboriginal people can manage our own affairs. Then, why is their silence so deafening when a band election is being appealed and it is seeking third party oversight? Indian Affairs bureaucrats will no doubt oppose it too. For many, their jobs depend on band councils being dysfunctional.

After all, Heaven forbid Natives become truly self sufficient and self governing.