Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vote-buying allegations bedevil First Nation

Lake St. Martin chief, lawyer call accusations baseless

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Lake St. Martin flood victims desperate for resettlement face yet another setback, this time allegations that their chief and council bought an election victory with whiskey, cash and marijuana.

Chief Adrian Sinclair and the First Nation's Toronto-based lawyer both dismiss the allegations as baseless.

"A rich man wouldn't live like this," Sinclair scoffed earlier this week, as he invited photographs to be taken of his rented farmhouse on the outskirts of Winnipeg. He blamed the trouble on internal strife within his beleaguered First Nation.

The house had mousetraps on the floor, plastic insulation on the windows and barely any furniture. The car parked in the driveway was a rented Dodge Charger.

Sinclair said he handed out his own provincial fishing-compensation award to band members for groceries and gas, but said such handouts happen all the time. Federal funding is locked up under third-party management, he said.

Critics stand by their charges, alleging the chief and several councillors spent the two weeks leading up to the June 28 election offering bribes for votes or mail-in ballots in a bid to stack the odds in their favour.

Ottawa took an appeal of the election victory seriously enough that Aboriginal Affairs officials ordered an investigation last fall.

The investigator compiled allegations and gave Ottawa an opinion on each.

But since then, the report has waited in Ottawa for responses from everyone named in it. The federal government has not issued its own judgment on the allegations.

The latest scandal has left the band -- which lost its land base to the flood -- facing the risk that its political leaders are in limbo, unable to negotiate a new home until their own fates are decided.

One elder, 82, said he believes the election appeal is really about who can get a settlement for the evacuees after two years of waiting.

Mark Traverse is the first to agree he didn't vote for the chief, but said he thinks another chief would have closed a deal by now.

Hundreds of evacuees are stuck in hotels and low-income housing in Winnipeg and desperately want to get back to their territory in Manitoba's forested lake region.

"If he could have agreed with the province... we'd have been gone far ahead and maybe there'd be land reserved for us," Traverse said.

Traverse lives in one of the 60 homes the province constructed for evacuees on a former radar base near Gypsumville, the town closest to the First Nation.

Sinclair rejected that offer more than a year ago, as did a lot of other evacuees. The province announced just before Christmas it will give the homes to evacuees from the First Nation's sister band, the Little Saskatchewan First Nation.

Meanwhile, the election appeal, filed last summer, is moving slowly through the federal bureaucracy.

"The appeal has not yet reached the minister's desk," ministerial spokeswoman Claudia Fournier said in an email response.

The report, which the department commissioned, is based on six witness reports and found the allegations "credible" four months ago.

"The pattern seen in these allegations is similar to other election campaigns when a group of candidates work together to buy votes," the report concluded last November.

The report cited "mickeys of whiskey," cash payments ranging from as little as $40 to as much as $500, gas and food vouchers, and a "bag of marijuana" as the chosen currency for election bribes.

"On Treaty Days at Little Mountain Park, Chief Adrian Sinclair had a truckload of 24-can cases of Budweiser beer and was giving the cases out to band members," the report said.

The scandal triggered a fierce legal defence with affidavits from the chief and council.

"All the allegations are completely unfounded and many of them do not meet any evidentiary standard at all," Lake St. Martin lawyer Robyn Gervais said in an email.

The lawyer discredited Ottawa's choice of investigation as a useless effort.

"You may want to turn your mind to what kind of evidence would be required if allegations of corruption were made (about) provincial or federal... politicians. I can assure you that a statement, not made under oath, would not suffice," Gervais wrote.

Under the Indian Act that governs First Nations in Canada, election regulations allow the minister to set aside an election and remove a chief and council from office for violating specific regulations.

Lake St. Martin's flooded-out reserve is located 255 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 A1

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