Federal officials say Ottawa can't interfere in an election on a remote Manitoba First Nation despite new rules that eliminate 80 per cent of residents from running for political office.
At the same time, Ottawa wishes the rules at Garden Hill First Nation complied with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, said a statement issued from the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
Under new rules set last week at Garden Hill, no one under age 50 may run for chief and no one under 40 for council. Further, people in common-law relationships will not be allowed to run for either chief or council.
The restrictions run counter to the charter but as aboriginal custom, it's unclear if they could be protected by constitutional guarantees for inherent aboriginal rights and freedoms. However, the case hasn't been argued in court and there's no suggestion the controversy will lead to a court case.
'Garden Hill First Nation selects leadership through a custom code process, outside the electoral provisions of the Indian Act'
That puts Ottawa in a dilemma. The statement Wednesday filled in some details about federal thinking around clashes between aboriginal and charter rights.
"We expect First Nations to enact custom election codes that are compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," the statement said.
Politically, however, Ottawa's hands are tied when it comes to customs around self-governance, leaving the courts as the final arbitrator, the statement said.
"Garden Hill First Nation selects leadership through a custom code process, outside the electoral provisions of the Indian Act. AANDC (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) has no role in the selection of community leadership, or how governance disputes are resolved," the statement said.
"The courts continue to be the appropriate body to make determinations about a community's leadership-selection process in the event that disputes can not be resolved internally."
The statement also said Ottawa is committed to working with First Nations to ensure accountability. There have been threats of violence in response to the restrictions from gang members on the First Nation.
Younger members of the Oji-Cree First Nation of about 5,000 complain they were shut out of the political process in the wake of rules that restrict candidates on the basis of age and marital status.
Garden Hill First Nation, 980 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, set new rules a week ago for nominations for a March 26 election. The new rules were chosen by a community meeting as is the First Nation's custom. Nominations were scheduled Wednesday, but there was no word on the outcome by the end of the day.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper issued a statement Wednesday to say the northern chiefs organization had no role in the Garden Hill election or its process.
"The MKO organization and its officials are not involved in any capacity in the upcoming elections at Garden Hill First Nation," Harper said in the statement.
Earlier this week, Harper said he respected the right of the community to decide how to run its elections but added he hoped Garden Hill would iron out its election procedures.
"The process for selecting the leadership of th Garden Hill First Nation is based on Garden Hill's customary laws and procedures which were practised before the Indian Act and which continue to be practised to this day. MKO respects the customary laws and traditional practices," the statement said.
Under Garden Hill's customs, the new rules stand until there's another election.
About 30 middle-aged residents attended a election-preparation meeting last week that set the nomination rules. Younger adults didn't attend, nor did a lot of elders, the election officer said.
As a result, the rules only reflected the views of people who showed up at the meeting.
Terms for chief and council are two years but a community meeting can remove the council before the end of term. That happened this time, when the current chief and council were ousted six months early for reasons not disclosed.
MKO receives notice of elections on northern First Nations and distributes the results.