Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First Nation needs help from within

Garden Hill boots chiefs, makes up election rules

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No one has to tell Grand Chief David Harper about the political uncertainty gripping his home of Garden Hill.

The leader of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an umbrella organization representing northern First Nations, was chief of Garden Hill for nearly a decade. On and off, that is.

Three times Harper was elected chief. And three times, before his term was finished, he was voted out at a meeting of band members. In one instance, he was turfed less than six months after he was elected.

That scenario played out again in Garden Hill earlier this month, when a group of about 30 residents gathered to vote out Chief Buddy Beardy and his council, who had been in office just over a year, Harper said.

A week after that, at a meeting to plan new elections, the same group of residents decided candidates for chief must be at least 50 years of age; councillors must be at least 40. And anyone in a common-law relationship is ineligible to run for office.

The rules for terminating a chief and council are fairly casual, Harper noted. Any member of the community may call a meeting as long as notices are posted at least seven days in advance. There are no hard rules for quorums, Harper said. "You just have to see if everyone feels there are enough people attending to make a decision," he added.

And once those decisions are made, no matter how unreasonable or exotic, they cannot be changed prior to an election being held, Harper added.

"It has been very unstable for a long time," Harper said. "I think we need to do something to stop this from happening over and over again."

Yes, something most definitely needs to be done. But what?

Neither the federal government nor MKO believes it has the authority to intervene in Garden Hill's populist mayhem. The right of bands to set rules for elections and the structure of government according to custom is considered sacred. That does not mean, however, everyone is cool with what's going on.

Ottawa issued a statement cautioning any First Nation about introducing restrictions on voting or candidacy that violate Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Harper also raised concerns about human rights violations. And yet, despite the fact human rights have indeed been compromised in Garden Hill, it seems everyone is willing to let it happen.

First Nation tradition expressly discourages outsiders -- of any culture -- from interfering with political matters. Chief and council at one First Nation usually focus on their own concerns, without commenting on the business of any other aboriginal community. Unfortunately, that 'not-my-brother's-keeper' mentality might ultimately hurt the cause of self-government.

Individual communities without the capacity or the inclination to pursue responsible government have been allowed to falter without aid from other First Nation leaders. The political umbrella organizations that should be intervening, and thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of aboriginal self-rule, have instead remained silent bystanders. This has prevented these groups from evolving into something more than unwieldy lobbies.

At a time when First Nations could be working together to create the checks, balances and accountability needed to govern citizens of any race, creed and colour, instead we have leaders standing by as weak and dysfunctional communities struggle with such basic things as elections.

It's also important to realize this inaction has allowed the federal government to step in and impose solutions. Such is the case with Bill C-9, the First Nations Elections Act. Tabled last year by the Conservative government, the act would extend the term of chief and councillors from two to four years and introduce penalties for anyone trying to manipulate an election. However, it also gives the federal minister the power to force bands to abandon custom-based electoral traditions.

Many aboriginal leaders, including AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, have called C-9 a "paternalistic" intrusion into First Nation governance. And, in many ways, it is.

What aboriginal leaders seem unable to do is to propose an alternative. Clearly, as demonstrated by the dysfunction at Garden Hill, allowing individual communities to make up rules on the fly is unacceptable. It would be much more desirable to see aboriginal leaders lead and come up with their own mechanisms for enforcing fair, open and accountable elections.

Garden Hill needs help. If not from a paternalistic government in Ottawa, then from other aboriginal leaders who know good governance is always culturally appropriate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 A13

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