Chief, band in election standoff; Members block bridge in dispute over extended term

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Government, Frontier Centre

A Southern Alberta native chief has cancelled a band election set for next month, extending his term by two years and provoking a protest blockade of the road into a reserve west of Calgary.

Residents of the Eden Valley Reserve set up a peaceful blockade of the bridge leading into the community last week, angered by an Oct. 14 band council resolution that would extend the term of David Bearspaw as Chief of the Bearspaw First Nation until 2012. The blockade was intended to prevent band administrators from entering or leaving.

One protester’s sign read, “Under custom if a Stoney chief is asked to step down –then he must.” The sign was a reminder of the frustrations felt by many people living on reserves about the ambiguous transparency requirements and lack of oversight expected of their chiefs and councils under the Indian Act.

“It’s very vague on election procedures, really,” said Joseph Quesnel, an analyst of First Nations issues at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Winnipeg-based think-tank.

According to reports, the protesters refuse to move aside unless they get an election next month as planned. Mr. Bearspaw’s term as Chief of the Bearspaw branch of the Stoney Nakoda tribe was set to end on Dec. 6.

Staff of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation did not return the Post’s requests for an interview with Chief Bearspaw yesterday. In an interview with the CBC, he said he needs two extra years to fix local problems of crime, poverty and substance abuse.

He also announced measures intended to fight corruption at the leadership level, including mandatory drug and alcohol tests for council members. He suspected some of them had used band money to go on drinking and gambling trips.

“I feel [that accountability] has to start from the top,” he told the CBC. “There has to be good leadership, good accountability, good role model.”

Meanwhile, the reported two dozen protesters blocking the road into Eden Valley told reporters that the Bearspaw First Nation has been making decisions behind closed doors. “There was never a proper band meeting held and they never informed the people,” one protester told the CBC.

The Western Wheel of Okotoks, Alta., reported that only 427 of 800 people returned a summertime survey on the proposed changes to band council. And of those, only 172, or 41% of respondents, agreed to an extension of the chief’s term to four years from two years while another 16% supported an extension to three years.

Like 337 other First Nations in Canada, or 55% of the total, Bearspaw First Nation follows a “custom election code.” These are designed at the local level and not policed by the Indian Act. Custom election codes leave no room for outside intervention or resolution in the case of a dispute, other than through the courts.

A spokeswoman for Indian and Northern Affairs confirmed yesterday that her department did not have the authority to intervene in the local dispute.

“It’s a completely internal matter, so we won’t be intervening in any way. Bearspaw First Nation is under a custom elections code, we have no jurisdiction,” said Chantal Patenaude.

“Custom elections are kind of a double-edged sword. They’re good because it’s freedom from the Indian Act, it allows [bands] to choose leadership that’s based on a local, lived reality. But the problem is you get people who are changing [rules], and Indian Affairs can’t intervene at that point,” said Mr. Quesnel.

The Bearspaw First Nation is a subgroup of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. Three groups within the Stoney Nakoda — the Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley First Nations — share the Eden Valley Reserve.