First Nations face governance crisis as pandemic threatens elections

OTTAWA — The chief of an Ontario First Nation says her community is caught up in bureaucratic and "paternalistic" voting rules that could leave it with a governance gap in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chief Valerie Richer says her Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, near Sudbury, was moving forward with its upcoming chief and council elections before the novel coronavirus hit Canada and was waiting for Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to approve the community's new election process.

The nation ratified a new custom election code in January, which would allow it to decide for itself how a vote in the community takes place rather than following the election provisions in the Indian Act.

But Richer says Miller has not yet approved her nation's new election code — which her community has found frustrating and inherently paternalistic, she said.

With their election set for June, nominations are due by the end of this month.

"ISC (Indigenous Services Canada) officials knew we were pushing to meet these dates, and nowhere during any of this process did anyone say to us, 'You might have difficulty in getting the minister's approval on this,'" Richer said.

Last week, Miller sent letters to First Nations gearing up for elections this year recommending they postpone their votes for six months.

Holding an election during a pandemic poses public health risks, he said, noting everyone is being asked to distance themselves from each other and avoid large groups wherever possible.

But Ottawa does not have the authority to extend terms for any chiefs and councillors who are currently in office, so any decision to postpone or go ahead with an upcoming election must come from the communities or nations themselves.

Officials in Miller's office have suggested to First Nations that they fill the governance gap that a postponed election would create by appointing an interim administrator or council.

Richer says this would be highly problematic, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

"There's no legitimacy in that kind of a governance structure. Things are set up for chief and council — signatures at the bank, legal documents in agreements with various government agencies," she said.

"You can't tell me that's not going to cause governance issues."

The new election code that her nation has approved allows online voting and would stream its upcoming nomination meeting online — actions not allowed under Indian Act election laws.

That's why Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation wants to proceed with its upcoming nomination vote.

"It is the safest option because it allows us to put in place a whole strategy so that people don't have to come out to our community centre to vote. You can vote from the safety of your home."

A number of First Nations across Canada with elections scheduled in the coming weeks and months are grappling with whether to go ahead or postpone their respective elections and some say they are not getting the information they need from the federal government.

That was the case for Shoal Lake 39, which went ahead with its election on March 26 after receiving no clear direction from Ottawa about what options it had, says Tania Cameron, the electoral officer for the community on the Ontario-Manitoba border.

She sent an email to Indigenous Services Canada expressing concerns from the community about going ahead with a vote in the middle of a pandemic, but the only response they received was that the department was "working on it."

"I thought, 'Well it looks like we have to go ahead with it.' So we beefed up our measures and we conducted our election on March 26," Cameron said.

To ensure public safety, they constructed their own isolation tent in the boardroom where voting was held. Only two voting members were allowed in the room at a time, and they were handed their ballots through a slot in the plastic tent.

Voters were asked to use hand sanitizer upon entering, they were asked to stay six feet apart and everything, including the ballot box, was disinfected between each vote-casting.

"Some people were a little bit annoyed but I said, 'This is for everyone's protection, ours and yours,'" Cameron said.

She said she would have preferred an option to postpone the vote to ensure everyone's safety.

But the community would have faced the same governance gap concerns identified by Richer.

"There would be no official chief and council that the federal government or provincial governments would recognize," Cameron said.

"We need funding relief, especially during these pandemic measures that are being put into place, we need funding to continue. Their agreement is with chief and council and if there's no chief and council that has huge implications for a community."

Miller's office says the government will work with communities that choose to postpone their elections to ensure leadership continuity.

Regarding Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, the department has recommended approval of their new election code and is moving the process forward.

"Unfortunately, the current health context has affected the timing of the process," Miller's press secretary Vanessa Adams said in an email Friday.

"Indigenous Services Canada is doing everything we possibly can do to respond to concerns and remain in regular contact with Chief Richer."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press