Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He transformed Berens River, but is it enough?

Chief's record won't secure re-election

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In the last three years, Chief George Kemp has authored a transformation.

In the summer of 2006, Kemp had just been elected chief of the Berens River First Nation, 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg. As documented in a feature story in the Free Press that year, the band was deeply in debt and profoundly dysfunctional. The federal government had already ordered it into co-management, and was hurtling towards third-party management, which would strip the chief and council of all control.

The community's roads were a disaster, drinking water was contaminated and the band's bank was demanding debt payments that were so high, the band had no cash on hand.

Berens River was basically a Grade-A stereotype of everything that's wrong with First Nations governance. But that was then.

Now, although there is still debt, the band is current on its loans, and almost breaks even on its annual operating budget. More importantly, along with improving finances, Kemp has launched economic development initiatives that have boosted employment and revenue streams.

Rock-crushing and road-resurfacing equipment have been repaired and new equipment has been purchased. Now, in addition to having fixed their own roads, Berens River has won a contract to provide gravel to a section of the all-weather road the Manitoba government is building on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

"We've been busy," Kemp said. "There hasn't been a recession in Berens River."

A lawyer who graduated from the University of Manitoba, Kemp was first elected in January 2006. He was re-elected in 2008 and next week, he runs for a third term. However, as proof that politics is a particularly thankless job, when the 2,500 members of Berens River go to the polls, there will be no less than eight contenders running for his job.

Is the sheer number of challengers a condemnation of Kemp's record? Perhaps, but it's more likely the improved state of the community has made the job of chief seem extremely attractive. If there is light at the end of the tunnel now for Berens River, it is evident to a growing number of band members. And just as is the case in mainstream politics, voters don't care very much who got them there.

First Nations politics presents special challenges to those journalists who dare to delve into its murky depths. Manitoba has more than 60 First Nations, and each operates like a small fiefdom.

But there is no official opposition in these fiefdoms, no news media to report without fear or favour on the daily decisions of the chief and council, or the tactics used to woo voters.

You will get no help from the umbrella political organizations such as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. First Nations leaders are, in every sense of the phrase, not their brother's keepers. No grand chief will ever condemn a band chief, even if there is evidence of misconduct or mismanagement.

(The most infamous example of this phenomenon was the refusal by grand chief Phil Fontaine, then head of the Assembly of First Nations, to condemn the abuse of funds at the Virginia Fontaine Treatment Centre located on the Sagkeeng First Nation. Despite the fact he was the highest-ranking aboriginal politician, and a resident of Sagkeeng, Fontaine would not comment on the Virginia Fontaine scandal.)

All this means that other than what you can see, there is little in the way of a record for First Nations politicians to run on. That makes it tough to tell the reformists from the despots.

In 2007, longtime Peguis First Nation dissident Glen Hudson finally won an election against his arch nemesis Louis Stevenson. Efforts to report on the battle were complicated because both sides levelled pointed allegations at each other. Stevenson, who had portrayed himself as a kind of aboriginal Robin Hood, had been involved in several odd incidents, including one in which he discharged a handgun in the bathroom at a hotel. But no one knew whether Hudson's allegations of impropriety were true. That made the election, which Hudson won, a purely sectarian affair.

From what we can see, Kemp has done a lot of good for Berens River. Has he been benevolent and just in all his decisions? Not sure. Has he shown favour to his friends and family? No specific allegations have been levelled. He is well-respected by the federal and provincial governments. And he wants to continue his good work for at least another two years.

However, in the mysterious world of First Nations politics, no one can say for sure that he will get that chance.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2009 A9

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