Derailed by-election in Kanesatake to be held in January

A meeting between a majority of Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chiefs and PlanIT Consulting and Communications has finally put the September by-election back on track after it was suspended at the request of MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille more than two months ago.

The chaotic postponement of the September 24 vote to fill the Council seat vacated by Teiawenhniseráhte Jeremy Tomlinson came on September 17 as advance ballots were being cast.

Bonspille attributed the decision to the appeals board, but this body does not have the authority to suspend elections.

Prior to the suspension, one candidate for the seat, Serge Otsi Simon - the former grand chief who lost his position to Bonspille - suspected the appeals board would seek a way to sink his candidacy. He made this prediction after finding out the body would include individuals who had publicly agreed with statements criticizing his decision to run and the timing of the by-election.

Simon was the subject of 11 eligibility objections from community members, but all of these were dismissed by PlanIT, the firm contracted to manage the process.

While PlanIT acknowledged the appeals board had no right to weigh in on the election itself, the firm acceded to Bonspille’s directive to postpone the by-election because he was the one who signed the contract on MCK’s behalf.

A fractious period for Council crystallized in the wake of the decision. MCK chiefs fought over procedure, with Bonspille refusing to discuss the suspension - which he ordered on a Saturday - because it was not submitted for the agenda by the previous Friday.

A quorum of four of the six chiefs - Amy Beauvais, John Canatonquin, Denise David, and Brant Etienne - convened a special meeting on October 4 and passed a Band Council Resolution (BCR) to resume the by-election. But the situation remained at a standstill, as Bonspille insisted that the vote had been illegal, leaving PlanIT unsure how to parse the havoc.

A legal letter submitted by the quorum to PlanIT followed by a meeting held last Thursday has persuaded the firm that the BCR is binding and that the firm can proceed. The grand chief and his sister, chief Valerie Bonspille, did not attend the meeting.

“As far as updates, all we discussed was, moving forward, that we have the go-ahead to start planning again,” said chief electoral officer Maris Jacobs of PlanIT.

“All the votes that came in are still going to be counted and the process will just resume with an advance poll, since that day was cut short. That will happen again. The election will happen a week afterwards, the same way,” she said.

While Jacobs declined to reveal tentative dates, she said a new calendar will be released the week of December 5, with the voting days to come after the holidays.

According to Etienne, the advance poll is expected on January 14 with election day taking place on January 21.

An emergency public meeting called by Bonspille for November 16 was set to focus at least in part on the quorum’s efforts to resume the by-election, but it was postponed out of respect for the memory of two Kanehsata’kehró:non elders whom the community recently lost, Jane Kanatenhawe Etienne and Donald Otsitsakenra Gabriel.

However, no matter the outcome of the community meeting if and when it takes place, Jacobs said PlanIT is not willing to get involved in community matters by deviating from the binding directive of a quorum of chiefs.

“I don’t know what the turnout could be, but if it’s something significant that changes the decision of the majority of the quorum, then it’s something we’ll consider,” she said. She clarified that if a majority of chiefs sign a BCR indicating a different decision, PlanIT would abide by it.

“We’re following quorum, and we’re going to continue to do that,” she said.

“Everybody seemed to be on the same page about getting it back on track,” said Etienne of the meeting with PlanIT.

“We got past that issue about what happens if the appeals board or Victor want to postpone or disrupt again - well, it’s not going to be allowed. They have no legal right to cancel or postpone it,” he continued.

Etienne emphasized that neither the electoral code nor any other document gives Bonspille or the appeals board the power to disrupt an election that has been called.

“We just want the rules to be followed, that’s all,” he said.

To Etienne, Bonspille’s decision to call a public meeting after the quorum made headway with PlanIT is typical of a pattern of behaviour on the part of the grand chief to thwart decisions he doesn’t like.

“This has been the problem with Victor’s performance throughout this entire mandate is if he doesn’t like an answer, he’ll keep calling meetings or trying to find other ways until he gets an answer he wants,” said Etienne.

While the by-election has been derided at multiple public meetings called by community members, these were sparsely attended, and a “People’s Resolution” dated October 3 that supported the suspension of the by-election arose from a meeting attended by only 31 people.

Etienne defended the decision to resume the by-election in the face of some community opposition by pointing out that the by-election was the decision of the community in the first place at a duly-convened public meeting attended by well over 100 people.

At that meeting, which was announced in advance and promoted through multiple channels, Etienne said, the community was offered a choice between a by-election or proceeding with a Council of six members. It chose a by-election.

“My hopes have been shaken throughout this ordeal, but they’re still resilient despite it all,” said Simon.

“My hopes are always for the kids of Kanesatake, not just my own. If my experience at that table can help get us back on track, then my hopes are tied to that.”

While Simon welcomes the resumption of the by-election, he is concerned that the amount of time before the vote gives Bonspille and his supporters ample time to disrupt it. Despite PlanIT’s pivot to taking direction from the quorum, Simon’s faith is still shaken.

“PlanIt had options last September other than stop the vote, so I blame them for helping Victor to further divide this community,” he said.

“I think Council should pay for extra security this time to make sure things don’t get derailed again because of a few people making threats.”

Two other Kanehsata’kehró:non are also on the ballot in the contest to become Council’s seventh chief.

Candidate Shirley Bonspille was not aware of the resumption when reached by The Eastern Door this week. She declined to comment until an official announcement is made. Candidate Lourena Montour could not be reached by deadline.

Grand chief Victor Bonspille declined to comment for this article.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door