Following the death of a man who had apparently just attended a campaign party, newly elected Innu Nation Grand Chief Etienne Rich is looking to strengthen and streamline election rules in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu to prevent candidates from influencing voters with alcohol, drugs or money.
On Aug 13 — the day before the Innu Nation election — Ryan Nuke, 26, was killed after reportedly leaving a campaign party offering free alcohol to guests. He was hit by a vehicle while walking along Route 520, outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
A number of people on social media have accused the grand chief's campaign team of throwing that party.
"I'm aware that's what people are saying," said Rich, when asked to respond to those allegations on CBC's Labrador Morning.
"Some people got together, held a party, with alcohol involved.… I didn't attend that party. And I never organized or hosted a party outside of reserve," he said.
I want to see a clean campaign. - Etienne Rich
Rich said he campaigned by going door to door and holding alcohol-free community barbecues.
"I really didn't know that someone arranged a party … in Goose Bay," he said.
Election bribery not new
Election bribery has been happening in Labrador Innu communities "for quite some time," according to Rich, who says, less than three weeks on the job, he's already met with the deputy grand chief and the chiefs of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish on the issue.
"These are the things that we need to change in our community — for both our communities, actually," he said.
"I want to see a clean campaign and I support that."
Rich says the top priority at the next Innu Nation board meeting is to discuss election reform and look at combining any draft election codes from Innu Nation, Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and Mushuau Innu First Nation to create a set of standardized campaigning rules across all three Labrador Innu organizations.
"These are things that … we really want to move forward really fast," he said, mentioning the possibility of having an update at the next annual general meeting or calling a separate community meeting to discuss progress.
Former grand chief speaks out
A day after the interview with Rich, former Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich said he has seen that type of campaigning for many years and as recently as the last election.
Rich said in the past he had also campaigned that way but said when he was elected grand chief and during the last election he did not use money, drugs or alcohol.
"People were asking me for $100 bills, $50 bills and I couldn't do it. I didn't provide any money to them and I told them I am running a clean campaign and I want to keep it that way," said Rich.
Rich, who is no longer and elected official and is now the economic development officer for Mashuau Innu First Nation said he is working on a draft to reform the electoral process and change the election codes to make sure bribing voters doesn't happen in the next election.
"I think the people now realize that this is very important that we not use alcohol, drugs and money to have a campaign. I think hopefully that this is a wake up call for both communities," he said. "I think that people are coming together now and want to see changes and I think it is very important that we implement the changes and develop new election codes."
Rich said new codes will have to be put in place before signing land claims and self government documents.
Rich said he believes there will be some pushback on changing the election codes to stop the use of buying votes with money, drugs and alcohol.
"Some of the people have been in the office for so long and that is how they campaign, using money to get elected. It's going to be very hard, they are going to challenge, they will want to not see any changes."
Family looking for justice
Nuke's family hopes his death puts pressure on elected leaders to enforce stronger campaign rules.
Family members say it's vital to find out whether the campaign party contributed to their loved one's death, that any candidate involved should be held responsible, and that the biggest change will come from penalizing anyone who has done wrong.
The RCMP is investigating. No charges have been laid.