Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Democracy usurped

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The outrageous move by a few Garden Hill residents to bar 80 per cent of adults there from running for office exquisitely illustrates the abuses that can reign on reserves that refuse to adopt good governance rules. Repeat attempts by Parliament to legislate basic protections against such tyranny of the minority have failed, but the abject disrespect for rule of democratic law on some reserves can't be tolerated.

Garden Hill First Nation, a community of almost 4,000 people on the shore of Island Lake, is no stranger to upheaval. Terms of office are nominally two years, but by band rules a community vote at any time can, and frequently does, toss chief and council out of office. This week, about 30 middle-aged residents called a meeting to prepare for the March 26 election and voted to bar anyone younger than 50 from running for chief and those under 40 from running for council.

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The Indian Act's rules for band government bear little resemblance to the modern statutes that set rules for elections, conduct of officials and general government for municipalities, provinces and Parliament. Bands justifiably bristle at the godfather-like power of the aboriginal affairs minister who can veto their every decision. But repeat attempts by Parliament to change that and bring band governance into the 21st century have failed.

Garden Hill is an extreme example of how abuses of power continue. Tribal and regional First Nations groups have refused to step in. But allowing this "to play out" -- hoping for a charter challenge at Garden Hill? -- as suggested by MKO Grand Chief David Harper is no solution.

Many progressive bands have enacted solid frameworks for self-government others can model. MKO and its regional and national counterparts must recognize the need for a national framework for good governance for all bands, with flexibility for local traditions and values.

Parliament has a role to play, but First Nations must move first, collectively, in their interests. Garden Hill makes a compelling case to push this onto the national agenda and Mr. Harper should lead that charge.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 A14

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