Native leaders react to proposed changes to Indian Act

by Phil Ambroziak

While the federal government claims it’s trying to make things better, some First Nations wish they’d simply leave well enough alone.

On Dec. 6, the Harper Government introduced the First Nations Elections Act. Designed to address long-standing criticisms of the election process under the Indian Act, the new legislation would bring with it a series of changes. These include: four-year office terms; eliminating the role of the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development in terms of election appeals; including provisions allowing First Nations to hold elections on a common day; clearing criteria on the eligibility to be a candidate for the position of chief; the possibility for individual First Nations to institute a candidacy fee of no more than $250; penalties for defined offences such as obstructing the electoral process and engaging in corrupt or fraudulent activities and powers to develop regulations surrounding mail-in ballots, advance polls and recall of elected officials.

In the northwest, First Nations leaders do not believe the proposed act would be of much value.

“I’m not entirely familiar with it (proposed act) because we hold our own band custom elections,” explained Clearwater River Dene Nation Chief Roy Cheecham. “Our people decide our own election rules such as timing, criteria for qualification and more.”

The election process, as outlined in the Indian Act, includes: two-year terms of office, which are often viewed as too short to accomplish important priorities; a loose process for the nomination of candidates; a mail-in ballot system, some say, could be open to abuse; a slow elections appeals system and the absence of defined offences and
penalties.

Cheecham said the Clearwater River Dene Nation’s election process does allow for four-year terms.

“The idea of having Ottawa say ‘here is a new election act for you’ is not right,” he said.

Meadow Lake Tribal Council Chief Eric Sylvestre reiterated the fact a number of First Nations communities have their own election acts.

“They’ve created their own,” Sylvestre said. “It (proposed act) is beneficial for now, until other First Nations can replace it with their own or when they are recognized as self-governing.”

Cheecham went on to state the only time Ottawa should be dictating anything is when it holds the purse strings.

“If we get into finances for infrastructure, education or something where they foot the bill, they have their say,” he said. “If that’s not the case, what right does the government have?”

He also believes it is time First Nations began proving they can accomplish these things without a helping hand from Parliament Hill.

“If we can become more self-determined when it comes to making money, we could get out from under the thumb of the federal government,” he stated.

Currently, of the 617 First Nations in Canada, 240 (roughly 40 per cent) hold elections in accordance with the election provisions of the Indian Act. An additional 341 First Nations (55 per cent) have community-designed or custom election codes while 36 First Nations (five per cent) select leaders pursuant to constitutions contained in their self-government agreements.

Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River MP Rob Clarke confirmed the proposed legislation still has a long process to follow before becoming official, adding the new act would allow First Nations the choice of opting in or maintaining their traditional band systems.

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