OTTAWA - The undrinkable water and uninhabitable housing on too many of our First Nations reserves ought to embarrass all Canadians. But so too should Canadians be embarrassed by the sham of an undemocratic election that happened on Tuesday at one of those First Nations communities — Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario.
Again, Attawapiskat finds itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons after its band and council, led by Chief Theresa Spence, decided to proceed with elections even though no provision had been made to get the ballots of the more than 55% of band members who do not live on the reserve.
Any Canadian voting in a federal, provincial or municipal election can avail themselves of advance polls or mail-in ballots to make sure their voice is heard at election time, but not at Attawapiskat, where all band members were allowed to vote — so long as they were actually on the remote reserve on election day.
In deciding to proceed, Spence and her council have thumbed their nose at the spirit, if not the letter, of a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that said it is a violation of charter rights to deny a band member the right to vote based on their residency status.
“Off‑reserve band members have important interests in band governance,” the court said. “Denying them the right to vote and participate in their band’s governance, perpetuates the historic disadvantage experienced by off-reserve band members. The complete denial of that right treats them as less worthy and entitled, not on the merits of their situation, but simply because they live off the reserve.”
But if Spence et al will ignore the Supreme Court, who will step in on behalf of the those members of the band living off-reserve?
Not Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. “That is something that the communities are going to have to work out with their members on their own,” she said Wednesday.
There was no immediate reaction from federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. Same silence from the Assembly of First Nations, the group that represents the country’s chiefs.
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents those living off-reserve, made a last-minute plea earlier this week to Attawapiskat’s council to postpone the vote until a way was found to include off-reserve members.
“I have always believed that the right to vote is a fundamental human right that cannot be denied to members of a community, who, for some reason or another, are living away from their reserve,” said Betty Ann Lavallee, CAP’s national chief. “This is unfair — it is wrong and it is against the law.”
Even those on the reserve were upset.
On his Twitter account, Attawapiskat citizen Jonathan Nakogee posted, “I’m not voting until my family members who are off reserve get to vote” and “They say every vote counts. I guess that doesn’t apply if you’re off reserve.”
Spence and her council made a half-hearted attempt in 2010 to reform governance procedures at Attawapiskat and, in doing so, were acting on the oft-stated wishes of community members, themselves.
But Spence and her council never followed through. They found excuses and in doing so, effectively disenfranchised an unknown number of band members.
One Attawapiskat band member who lives in North Bay, Ont., Charles Hookimaw, has vowed to appeal Tuesday’s elections.
The federal government’s registry of First Nations says there are 3,351 members of the Attawapiskat band and, of those, 1,862, or 55%, do not live on the reserve.
A Postmedia reporter this week found an Attawapiskat band member in Ottawa who wanted to vote but couldn’t afford the $2,000 plane ticket home and another in Fort Albany, Ont., who spent $400 on a flight just to cast a ballot against Chief Spence.
That ballot, as it turned out, was in vain. Spence was re-elected for another three-year term, winning 214 votes out of the 507 votes cast for the four candidates running for chief.