AMC to Stardardize Elections in Manitoba

By Lloyd Dolha

Manitoba First Nations are developing a plan to standardize Band Council elections, set new term limits, and choose an Aboriginal electoral officer. Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Ron Evans said he hopes the changes now being readied will allow for greater continuity in First Nations leadership in the province and will put an end to the repeated appeals and electoral frauds that have plagued a number of First Nations in recent years.

In January, at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs general assembly, a resolution was passed to develop a new electoral system that may be taken to all Manitoba First Nations in a referendum as early as Fall this year. The new system would have every First Nation hold an election on the same day, on a three or four-year term, similar to the elections in Manitoba municipalities.

Evans said a provincial First Nations electoral officer position will be created to oversee the elections like Elections Manitoba does for provincial elections. “We can put in conduct rules and regulations,” said the grand chief. He said the standardized dates and formats would mean greater continuity in First Nations leadership.

Right now, many First Nations hold elections every two years, which means there is little time for implementing new initiatives, and chiefs are often loathe to make challenging decisions because of the short election cycle. Hopefully, the new standardized election cycle will help overcome overt corruption in some elections and introduce greater transparency as well as a greater sense of legitimacy to elected chiefs, according to Evans. The AMC has until its next general assembly in September to come up with a formula for holding the referendums.

Right now, there are two ways First Nations in the province elect their chiefs and council. Thirty-seven Manitoba First Nations elect their leadership through the rules set out in the Indian Act, which requires elections of chief and council every two years. The remaining 25 First Nations set their electoral rules using community custom election processes. Many of the custom election systems are not written or codified, and some are in breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Some of them also lack effective dispute resolution mechanisms, and there are large procedural gaps in some systems. As a result of this, situations often arise where governance disputes can paralyze the day-to-day business of a First Nation.

Electoral problems continue to arise rpeatedly on some First Nations, such as the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation and the northern Norway House Cree Nation (NHCN). In January, the NHCN Election Appeal Committee (EAC) announced a finding of corrupt practices by three band councillors during the March 2006 NHCN chief and council election. Just days prior to the election, incumbent elected councillors Eliza Clarke, Mike Muswagon, and Langford Saunders signed and delivered 90 letters promising new homes, trailers, and furniture to band members. The EAC found that the actions constituted corrupt practice. An appeal of the election of the three candidates was launched to the EAC by four other candidates of the 2006 election: Alphius Wilson, Andrew Simpson, Henry Moore and Hubert Hart.

According to a January press release, the members of the EAC were politcally appointed by the previous chief and council that included the three candidates. On May 10, 2007, the EAC dismissed the appeal. As a result, candidates who submitted the appeal sought a judicial review of the EAC decision in Federal Court. The court referred the matter back to the EAC in August and instructed the committee to consider the law on corrupt practice and three other federal court decisions that won when he was elected NHCN councillor in February and March 2006. At that time, the court found that Eliza Clarke, Mike Muswagon, and Langford Sauders all engaged in unlawful conduct, influence peddling, and blackmail against Marcel Balfour.

“I am saddened these individuals engaged in corrupt practice when they were elected officials. However, their activity is certainly not refective of the rest of the council or the NHCN band as a whole … It’s been over two years since our election and this matter has interfered with the governing of the Cree nation,” said Chief Balfour. “We have already engaged in a renewed process involving our people to change our election law, a process the previous leadership denied our people despite the law’s mandatory requirement to do so,” added the chief. “The EAC’s decision requiring a by-election and our electoral reform will finally erase the legacy of previous unlawful conduct and set a bold new direction for our people.”

In March, the Roseau River Anishnabe First Nation asked the federal government to intervene in the election results after two seperate votes elected two different men as the First Nation’s chief in the March 2nd election. Both Terry Nelson and Antoine Felix say they are the legitimately elected Chief and discount the other’s election as bogus. The rife is a source of tension in the community 80 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has been in contact with both parties and will make a decision on how to proceed soon. The double elections are the result of an ongoing battle between Nelson and Antoine for the First Nation’s leadership, which includes a court case that’s been ongoing for two years.