Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s band council elections on the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, the result will be tainted by an unfair electoral process that has been conducted in defiance of legitimate calls for reform.
Band Chief Teresa Spence, who went on a liquid diet last year to protest government handling of aboriginal issues, is running for re-election against three other candidates. Issues of inadequate housing and management of mining revenue should be central in the campaign, but are taking a backseat to a long-running controversy over election rules in the community.
The band requires members to vote in person, which creates an expensive disincentive for almost half of the 3,350 people who live in other communities and must buy plane tickets to fly back to vote. They want the right to use mail-in ballots.
A similar complaint was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999, when it ruled that off-reserve members of the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario could vote in a band election. The court said voting restrictions were unfair to band members, many of whom had strong ties to the community but moved to find work or better housing.
The complex court ruling did not give off-reserve members of all communities the right to vote in all circumstances, but it nevertheless led many bands to introduce reforms to extend voting rights. Similar attempts to develop reforms in Attawapiskat have failed, however. A new election code drafted in 2010 by a special committee was abandoned after only a small fraction of members voted in a ratification ballot. Band officials, meanwhile, say sending mail-in ballots across the country would be too expensive.
Some off-reserve band members are complaining about being shut out yet again after waiting years for reform, and have taken their protest to the media. They have the law on their side, as well as precedent in other aboriginal communities. Attawapiskat needs to resolve its electoral problems not only to provide fairness to all members, but also to give its elected officials more legitimacy in the broader world outside the community.