Candidates for council in Pikwakanagan share vision for the community

Pikwakanagan – With the election for a new council and chief coming up on March 25, an election platform meeting was held recently for community members to hear from the candidates.

A variety of issues rose to the forefront and were mentioned by many of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation (AOPFN) candidates including: the Grandmother’s lawsuit and candidate involvement; addiction issues; the land claim; the purchase of two parcels of land by the band; ZOOM meetings and plans for the future.

Each candidate had 20 minutes, which was up to them on how they used the time. They could speak and deliver their platform for the entire time or allow time for questions.

Last week the Leader featured the three candidates running for chief: incumbent Chief Wendy-Anne Jocko, who is completing her first term; former chief Greg Sarazin and long-time council member Jim Meness. This week the Leader will begin featuring the candidates for council with the remaining featured next week.

Running for council are: Angelina Commanda (incumbent); Barbara Sarazin (incumbent); Catherine Bernard; Dale Benoit; Don Bilodeau; Justine Belaire; Karen Whalen; Loretta – Budgie – Nadeau; Mervin Sarazin (incumbent); Natalie Commanda; Shelley Belaire; Sherry Kohoko; Steve Benoit (incumbent) and Vicky Two-Axe.

Shelley Belaire

Shelley Belaire was born in Pikwakanagan, although she has lived off reserve for many years. She worked at CNL (Canadian Nuclear Laboratories) for over 30 years, working her way up to leadership and brings this experience to her campaign for council.

“I am you – a mother, grandmother, aunt, friend, an Algonquin,” she noted. “I’m very concerned where this next term will take us.”

She spoke about the protests which have been occurring in the community and noted she did not feel things were handled properly.

“Concerned members have requested to talk to chief and council,” she said.

There was a protest at the Kokomish and while the chief and councillors came there, there was no dialogue with the protesters, she said.

“The chief stood there for a short time and left,” she added.

Ms. Belaire said a second protest was held with a blockade at the Makwa Centre.

“Chief and council called police and did not talk to protesters,” she said.

The protest was peaceful, but the chief then decided to move the meeting to Petawawa, she pointed out.

She said the protests and protesters were not handled properly by chief and council.

“You don’t have to agree with what everyone says, but you do have to listen,” she said.

Ms. Belaire noted she was proud of the protests in the community.

“This was the most warriorlike behaviour the Algonquins have exhibited since the blockade at Algonquin Park,” she said.

There needs to be a streamlined process so community members can have their issues heard and resolved in a timely fashion.

“Why worry about $5 million for a museum when the manor is substandard?” she asked.

Should the museum be more important than the manor or fire hall, she questioned?

“If the grandfather teachers are not upheld at the highest level by our leadership, how can we expect anyone else to adopt them,?” she asked.

In running for council she noted this is a very crucial year for voting as the government is expecting to sign off with the Agreement in Principle (AIP) in 2024. It will be a daunting term for council, she said.

“You need to take a really good look at who you are voting for,” she warned.

Ms. Belaire was asked what changes she proposes in her quest for equity and fairness. She said it was looking carefully at the people voted into leadership. She was also asked if she was part of the Grandmothers group (which is in a protracted lawsuit against the AOPFN). She said she was not.

When challenged her comments were full of negativity, Ms. Belaire said the small incidents are setting up the community to fail.

“We need to fix those little things at the bottom,” she stressed.

“We are not perfect,” she noted, adding it was important to take a positive approach rather than a negative one.

Ms. Belaire was questioned on the role of council. She said it was to assist the community, provide ideas and find ways of supporting.

Dale Benoit

Dale Benoit began her comments by noting she is not a member of the Grandmother group involved in the lawsuit. She pointed out she has led the opening of the food bank for the community and food security is an important issue for her.

“On average we supply food for between 70 and 90 meals per month as a food bank,” she said.

Ms. Benoit said she would like to explore solar greenhouses and a large community garden on land which was purchased just outside Golden Lake or in the community. As well, she has a love of the outdoors.

“I am an avid harvester and gatherer and love being on the land my ancestors may have walked upon,” she said. “I believe our connection to the land makes us who we are.”

If elected to council, she wants to improve communications, noting it has been sparse.

“Regular communications and regular member meetings are not high on the radar,” she said. “What are our plans and priorities? Where are our funds going?”

As well, she questioned the final treaty proposal and said she is not informed enough to cast a vote.

“I hear the AOO (Algonquins of Ontario) will be the governing body after a treaty has been reached,” she said. “Are you okay with that? Yes, we need all Algonquins involved, but at what level?”

Ms. Benoit said she is concerned there is disunity in the community. She wants to focus on rebuilding unity, trust and pride in the community and nation.

“We are broken and divided and nothing has been done to rectify this,” she said. “The divide keeps growing and growing.”

If elected to council she wants to help unite Pikwakanagan, she said. There are also serious issues in the community, she said.

“We have elders with no running water,” she said.

There are security issues and having a security company would be a good step, she said.

“We need to govern our community to know who is in our community all times,” she said.

Ms. Benoit said there needs to be accountability and accessibility of the leadership. She said there should be regular meetings at each solstice with a feast.

In terms of the negotiations, she said she is not privy to negotiations.

“Who is directing our leadership at that table?” she asked.

She suggested having a referendum to decide if Pikwakanagan stays under the AOO umbrella.

In economic development, she said it is important to ensure Pikwakanagan is included in all projects in the territory.

“Every potential partner should be made aware that these projects will not proceed unless we have a meaningful relationship that goes beyond consultation and engagement,” she said.

Ms. Benoit supports the right to self-determination and self-governance. She added she supports Pikwakanagan’s community submission under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

“This is our chance to provide our input on a Canadian law and how we want the government to deal with us,” she said.

Steve Benoit

Steve Benoit is an incumbent councillor seeking re-election.

“I’ve served for the last two terms, six years and would like the opportunity to continue to represent you,” he said.

He pointed out he has enjoyed being on council and spoke about the personality traits he brings to the job, including listening to people. He said his personality traits include honesty and sincerity. This is a strong foundation for building trust in the community.

“If you are not comfortable talking to someone, you can’t’ bridge those gaps,” he said. “I love my community, very much so.”

Coun. Benoit said he likes to help out in the community, including building a float for the Christmas parade and volunteering at the food bank his mother runs.

“There is so much need out there,” he said.

He addressed the word virtually, pointing out it is something that is more upfront that it has ever been.

“COVID changed the way business gets done,” he said.

There can be advantages of virtual communication, he said. Many people were able to watch the election platform meeting on ZOOM, which was positive, he said. However, COVID did have an impact on the community and this affected things in the last term, he said. Many businesses, community members, staff and others suffered during COVID, he said.

Coun. Benoit sits on a variety of committees in the community as well as the Bonnechere River and Madawaska River Advisory Plans and the Algonquin Park Advisory Council.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of positive change,” he said.

He stated there is a lot of interest in the election this year and he was glad to be open for questions.

If re-elected, he promised to “continue to put Pikwakanagan and our people first to work hard and be honest, transparent and accountable. To always work to ensure our future and present generations get benefit from our presence in our traditional territory. To protect Pikwakanagan, our membership and our families.”

Coun. Benoit was questioned about the community being closed and there were checkpoints with no councillors present. He replied he did go to quite a few checkpoints.

When asked about council still meeting virtually, he said they should meet in person more.

“We do have a lot of people who participate in meetings,” he said. “While council could meet in person, there is still a need for virtual.”

The councillor was challenged when he was asked about issues, he often says he does not know.

“If I say I don’t know, I will bring back answers,” he promised.

Another question was about the hiring of non-natives for positions in the community.

“Chief and council don’t hire people,” he said. “It is passed through the administration.”

As well, many of the positions require a lot of qualifications, he said.

“We need to train our youth,” he said.

When asked about wage disparity, he said people need to be paid what they are worth and it is important to pay people properly.

Catherine (Cathy) Bernard

Catherine (Cathy) Bernard noted she brings a lot of corporate experience to her candidacy for council. She began working for the APFN in 1981 as the first economic employment officer. She continued her career working for the First Nation for 37 years. She was the interim executive director many times and although offered the job on a permanent basis, she refused, feeling she was better working in the financial management.

“I acted as a trusted sounding board for chief and council, managers, staff and community members,” she said.

Ms. Bernard said she was involved in settling up policies because when she started working for AOPFN there were five employees, plus the daycare and Tennisco Manor. There have been policies dealing with a variety of areas, she said. She was one voice in a team which created substantial growth for the First Nation, she said.

“I pride myself on my integrity, my work ethic, my professionalism and my dedication to duty, my support for the operational team,” she said.

While she is not an expert on the Land Claim negotiations, she said she understands the importance of communication.

“I too have concerns,” she said.

“I will not voice my personal concerns because with an elective body it should not be my personal concerns,” she said.

Ms. Bernard said there have been many issues addressed by candidates, but she wanted to bring up two issues which needed addressing. One issue was drugs in the community.

“It has hit every family I know of,” she said. “I have personally experienced this illness up close.”

This is an important issue and she grapples with how to deal with it. She suggested investing in a homegrown rehabilitation centre for the children and youth.

“Much to my surprise today I heard there was a rehabilitation centre coming,” she said. “I had not heard communication on this before.”

While drugs will never be eliminated, the flow can be stemmed, she said.

Another important issue is mental health. There needs to be resources for individuals and families.

“It is an illness which affects every family,” she said. “Assistance to those stuck by the illness and their families should be paramount.”

“This issue will require a team effort from every angle,” she said.

Her focus is to ensure community members are heard, that the First Nation staff are supported and protected and morale issues addressed. She believes in the five pillars of government: legitimacy, accountability, transparency, responsiveness and effectiveness.

Ms. Bernard said she is confident council and chief will deal with the outstanding issues with negotiations and in the community.

“I will hear you and I will act in the best interest of this community,” she said.

She said as a natural leader she demonstrated commitment to community growth, integrity and professionalism. She said she has a thorough understanding of contribution agreements and financial institutions, among others.

“I would be thankful to be a member of your governance team,” she said.

Don Bilodeau

Don Bilodeau was away when the meeting was held, but did send a video which community members could watch. He pointed out he had a prior commitment and commitments are important, but he wanted to share his vision.

“I moved to Pikwakanagan in 2017 after a long career – 35 years - working in the federal public service,” he said.

He understands how government works and can manage large complex files, he said. There are lots of opportunities for the First Nation.

“We have opportunities for employment, for developing our culture, to reclaiming our culture, to taking pride and ownership in this territory,” he said. “All we have to do is step forward and work together to do that.”

Exciting things are unfolding in Pikwakanagan in the next few years.

“We are on the verge of some big changes,” he said. “I really hope we can work together.”

He said he can talk about what he knows and doesn’t know, as well as how he feels. When it comes to the Land Claim, he said he feels concerned about how things are going.

“I can see how divisive it is getting for our community members. Having lived away from Pikwakanagan, I know what it is like to feel not part of the inclusion,” he said. “So I want to bring a balanced approach to how we as a Frist Nation move forward.”

He has worked in different aspects of the First Nation for the last eight years, in economic development, consultation, the limited partnership and the cultural centre.

“I see more pride, I see more use of the language, I see more regalia making, I see the biggest Pow Wow ever and I think those are all signs of things to come,” he said.

He said people his age have endured a lot and waited for a settlement. He said there are people looking for new experiences and there is a new generation wanting to be involved in the economy of the territory. There is a renewed interest in the culture and traditions, he said.

“We need to work together and if I am elected to council, I will do my best to represent the interests of all of you. To be inclusive to all members and citizens of Pikwakanagan and this First Nation,” he said.

Mr. Bilodeau said he promises to be deliberate, ethical and responsible. While he does not know what it is like to be on council or at the AOO table, he said he would work hard to make sure the community is not divided and can move forward.

“So we can succeed in what we want to do. Stop bickering amongst ourselves and embrace all the opportunities we have,” he said.

While in the past he was asked to run for council, this is the right time, he said.

“Never before have I seen such interest, from all the proponents in our territory to be part of Pikwakanagan’ s future. There is a genuine interest and concern,” he said.

Angelina Commanda

Incumbent Councillor Angelina Commanda is completing her first term on council. She pointed out in the last three years the AOPFN has made a lot of advancements. One issue which is important to her is management of natural resources. She was pleased to see the return of the Earthwalker Program through her lobbying.

Another issue was the need to acquire more property to pursue economic development.

“I was able to establish AOPFN’s first property investment team,” she said.

Properties with visible economic opportunities which could increase the land base were sought out. Two properties were purchased, she said. One was 204 acres and the other 22 acres.

“Land is a fundamental asset for sustainable economic development,” she said.

Coun. Commanda said she wanted to update some misinformation on the land purchases. While she did apologize for not consulting the community, she said there needed to be some issues dealt with in a closed manner.

“If everyone knew Pikwakanagan was looking for land and they know it was us, they would jack the price up,” she said.

There have been other properties purchased in the past, she noted, including the Marquart property in 2013 and the Lake Clear property in 2019.

There is a need to move people back home and positive changes have been made to help people have a home, she said.

“Members could borrow up to $300,000 to build a new home or purchase a previously built home in Pikwakanagan,” she said.

The treaty negotiations are approaching a deadline with the next expected in 2024, she said. She said there are many issues, including the final treaty will determine what Algonquin rights will be. She said other issues include the fact the AOPFN is not in charge of the negotiations, but the AOO is.

“Certain members of council regularly vote against AOPFN at the treaty table,” she said.

There is not a level playing field at the negotiation table for AOPFN, she said.

“We are losing support from other true First Nations by supporting AOO,” she said.

The treaty would only give 1.43 percent of the unceded Algonquin traditional territory back, she noted. The compensation package would only be an estimated $120 million, she said. There are over eight million acres left and there are resources on that land which have been stolen and exploited, she said.

The treaty does not have to be negotiated with AOO, she said. She added the AOPFN instituted the historic land claim but has lost control with nine other communities on the claim.

“We can turn back the table and take back what we started, if you elect the right council that fights for AOPFN and not AOO,” she said.

The governments would not walk away forever, she said, pointing out the Nation’s Capital sits on unceded Algonquin territory.

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader