An election to bridge worlds

·7 min read

Waywayseecappo First Nation members will go to the polls Feb. 23, with 37 vying for a seat on council and one member challenging current Chief Murray Clearsky. In 2019, Waywayseecappo had a registered population of 2,818 people, with 1,604 living on-reserve. The Brandon Sun tried to reach out to as many candidates as possible. Should any other candidates wish to speak publicly, please contact mletourneau@brandonsun.com.

This year’s election at Waywayseecappo First Nation, scheduled for February 23, has no shortage of community-driven energy, and a theme has emerged — unity.

Along with trying to bring together on-reserve and off-reserve members, a group of candidates is calling for transparency and accountability at the First Nation.

Jeremy Shingoose is running for chief, facing off against Murray Clearsky, who has held the leadership position in the community for 32 years, a span of time which included negotiations for a multi-million settlement with the federal government.

Shingoose said he has heard from many community members who feel their voices are not being heard.

Clearsky, the long-time chief, previously told The Brandon Sun he is running on his record, but some feel that’s not enough. None of the candidates the Sun spoke with had inclinations to disparage the current leadership. They just feel more can be done for the membership, especially youth, women and elders.

Shingoose, who grew up at Waywayseecappo, wants to take the community to another level. Life on the reserve is not at all like life off-reserve —and it makes no sense.

"The foundation of my campaign, of all my ideas, is transparency, community consultation and accountability. Also, teamwork, collaborating, working with council and community members," said Shingoose.

"When it comes to being a band member in Wayway, there are not a lot of things you have a say in. You get to vote in elections and that’s really it," he said, adding that the pandemic has made the election more difficult.

He said the band members and the community are putting their trust into the leadership, but he thinks that relationship — between leaders and band members — needs a lot of work.

But, together, with three members running for council — Eileen Clearsky, Caroline Clearsky and Quentin Mentuck — Shingoose hopes to change that, and his social media represents that. He has tried to make the electoral process more visible and more accessible to all.

Eric Mentuck, who owns his own bustle-making business and has funded youth programs on his proceeds, is separate from the group and similarly looking to engage the community.

Eric told the Sun his greatest concern is for the youth of the community. He has built a land-based program for youth that is highly regarded across the province at First Nations, and he is sought out to speak about those successes.

He said he wants to focus on the future, not the past — but he acknowledges that the past has dictated what is happening now on-reserve. The work he’s already accomplished ties into everything, he said, including his future decision-making.

"This ties into the future. This ties into the past. Our people have been very traumatized through colonization and land-based learning is the start to alleviate a lot of these problems," said Eric.

For Caroline Clearsky, this election reflects her hopes for women and so much more. She’s been nominated for chief in previous elections.

"They’re not ready for a woman," she said.

"We live in an archaic mindset. The world around us is evolving, and I guess Wayway is just not ready for that."

Caroline’s primary goal, based on conversations with band members, is to unite the on-reserve and off-reserve members.

"We’re walking this journey together, but we’re walking separately," said Caroline. "We’re all family members. The children of on-reserve members are going to grow up and move out. Just like Jeremy said he did. Now, he’s considered off-reserve. So how did that happen? How did he become an off-reserve, separate from on-reserve?"

She said that’s a mindset people have and it’s not healthy.

Candidates in this election did say the Indian Act produces these conflicts and is intended to.

Each candidate spoke of the healing that needs to happen, and other sources have told the Sun repeatedly that the system needs to change at a basic level. The Indian Act created a patriarchal and limiting system that sought to control Indigenous communities and hem them in, and it’s not the first time Indigenous people have expressed this position.

This election, in fact, demonstrates that young Indigenous people seek out education, live and function in the so-called real world, and are more than capable — and they want to lead their people to broader horizons.

"We all matter. We’re all important and we shouldn’t be excluded," said Caroline.

Caroline spoke of her grandmother, Victoria, who died in the 90s, and what a strength she once was. A matriarch, she instructed her people on the right way to proceed on matters,

"Every day," said Caroline.

"When she passed away, all of that went away."

Caroline, has, for example, more than 13 years working with Anishinabe people in a treatment centre. Her knowledge of the homeless and displaced youth aging out of care, most struggling with addictions, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, meth addiction, opioid addiction, vulnerable youth on the street who are at risk of becoming a statistic of sexual trafficking, are part of her life.

"I provided cultural support to the youth who dropped in to eat, rest, change, connect with staff. I provided the traditional practices and teachings. We smudged, sang, storytelling, visiting. Building trust and providing a safe place to fall was our main objective. This skill takes a lot of sympathy, respect, trust, patience and understanding. These are qualities I have to offer," she said.

Eileen said everyone on the reserve is related, and there is a common goal — equal opportunity for all members. But, fair elections have been a problem in the past, she said, and that is also a problem the Sun has heard from several sources from several First Nations.

There are also allegations about those with access to funding buying votes. On-reserve folks are often in desperate straights. This allegation is not limited to Waywayseecappo. It’s not unheard of for a band member to receive an extra $250 when an election time comes around, or, in the case of one other First Nation, a turkey might get delivered.

Eileen said her electoral group wants to stand together and she wants everyone to have a voice, to vote. And, she said, Caroline is correct when she said women leaders in the community are now very rare.

Anishinabe women have an important voice, and it’s a voice that should be heard widely.

"We’re very fortunate to have a large number of women running for councillor in this election," Caroline said.

The women are committed, she said.

"Our current state is overcome with addiction, with the loss of culture, identity, values and language. This is a time where we, the women, will stand up for what we believe in the balance of power in council, equal opportunity to help heal our community and unite everyone," Eileen said.

"So for me, this is what we represent. The male members, Jeremy and Quentin, have stood beside us."

Quentin has quite a few concerns. He also wants accountability. Too much happens behind the scenes. For example, the current chief was booted from his position at the Southern Cheifs’ Organization for financial issues, Quentin believes the government leads his people to poverty, and he’s done with that.

And none of this addresses rampant sexual abuse, which the Sun has heard about regarding other First Nations.

Shingoose said he is promoting everyone running for council. And, Quentin Mentuck, early on, urged potential candidates to stay away unless they really mean it.

This is a high-stakes election for a community that wants to thrive. What that means is the future is in the hands of a new generation and new politics.

Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun