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As Fort William confronts its usual challenges at election time, it is also grappling with a more fundamental problem: how a system of government that was designed to control and assimilate the community near Thunder Bay can be used to improve its lot and preserve its identity instead

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Peter Collins is the current chief of Fort William First Nations.The Globe and Mail

The main roads of Fort William First Nation are a riot of campaign signs a week before voting day. Some are hand-drawn on neon bristol board; others are carved out of plywood to look like Montreal Canadiens jerseys.

Electioneering is at an even higher pitch on Facebook, where voters and candidates trade insults along with inspirational quotations from Barack Obama.

Local democracy is in full bloom on this reserve next to Thunder Bay.

That represents progress. Elections at Fort William have not always been free and fair, and have often been swayed by the heavy hand of the federal government. In 1933, a well-documented vote for chief was overseen by red-coated Mounties who watched as the band re-elected Frank Pelletier, not by secret ballot, but by a show of hands.

Despite the strides it has made, this community of 2,400 is still marked by its colonial past at every turn, from the part of the reserve known as Squaw Bay, to the very chief-and-council system for which the band is currently choosing leaders.

As Fort William confronts its usual challenges at election time − housing, addictions, employment − it is also grappling with a more fundamental problem: how a system of government that was designed to control and assimilate the community can be used to improve its lot and preserve its identity instead.

Resolving that contradiction has not been easy, but some members of Fort William are determined to try. “We can maintain traditional core values … while embracing and building on mainstream frameworks,” said Georjann Morriseau, a former chief. “We do not have to give up one for the other − there’s always a balance. We’ve got to be able to find that.”

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Bonnie Pelletier is one of two candidates running for chief of the Fort William First Nations.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Besides their eye-catching flamboyance and sheer number, there’s something else distinctive about Fort William election signs: A few names appear on them again and again. The band is politically dominated by family dynasties, and in this election alone ten Pelletiers are running for office, along with nine Bannons and seven Collinses.

Nicknames help set the candidates apart, and underscore the intimacy of elections in a place where everyone knows everyone. The monikers of Ed (Thumper) Collins, Sheldon (Shezzy) Bannon and Rita May (Toto) Fenton vie for eyeballs on a crowded ballot containing more than 50 council hopefuls.

The most important names in this election, though, are those of Peter Collins and Bonnie Pelletier. They are running for chief in a community where that position wields enormous power. The importance of external affairs such as land-claim negotiations helps invest the band’s leader with outsize importance.

Mr. Collins and Ms. Pelletier are archetypal candidates: the one, a grizzled veteran of reserve politics with a list of accomplishments as weighty as the ethical baggage he is seen to carry; the other, a relative outsider with a mile-long CV and a reforming streak. It is experience against change.

Mr. Collins was first elected chief in 1998, and his time in office has only been briefly interrupted twice since − a long career whose toll shows through in a weary manner and a somewhat casual approach to this, his final campaign.

“If they feel it’s time for change, I’m okay with that,” he said, reclining in an office chair in the band council building.

Like many long-time incumbents, he is more voluble on the subject of the past than the future, and will happily rattle off what he sees as his greatest hits without prompting. “We’ve built two arenas, we’ve built the community centre, we’ve built the Dilico child and welfare centre,” he said. “We built Resolute mill, we settled close to $300-million in claims, probably about $100-million in infrastructure built since I got here, about 150, 200 houses built since I got here. If I do have to leave, I’ll leave behind a good legacy.”

It is probably no surprise that someone who has led the community for a generation should have some victories that literally define the place. Most recently, Mr. Collins secured a $99-million settlement from the federal government for reserve land that was expropriated by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway more than a century ago, a move that forced the community to exhume graves, abandon farms and move to its current location at the base of the imposing Mount McKay.

But by the same token, the clouds hanging over Mr. Collins hang over Fort William First Nation, as well. In the early 2000s, his wife, Susan, took part in a wide-ranging welfare fraud scheme on the reserve that swiped nearly $1.3-million from the provincial government by creating false Ontario Works client applications. She was sentenced to 10 months in prison in 2011. Mr. Collins was never implicated.

Bonnie Pelletier is something like Mr. Collins’s opposite. She left the north shore of Lake Superior for a prelaw program at the University of Saskatchewan in 1993 and, from then on, built her life away from home. For fifteen years, she practised law on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Eastern Ontario and is currently studying Indigenous governance at Queen’s University.

Ms. Pelletier brings an almost academic perspective to band issues, a far cry from the earthy approach of Mr. Collins. She defends her time away from the community by pointing to the impressive career she’s built and the fresh perspective it’s given her. (She also says that she has lots of family on reserve.)

“It’s just come full circle, where I’m in a really good position to give back,” she said, sipping decaf coffee in a Thunder Bay hotel restaurant.

The Pelletier platform can be summed up in one word: accountability. She has an outsider’s sense of indignation at the informal way so much band business is conducted, in ways large and small. She can’t believe that voters are welcome to mark their ballots with an erasable pencil − “Why not just give them a crayon?!” she said − or that one of the candidates for council is the father of the electoral officer.

“It should be KPMG or something running the election − not a band member,” Ms. Pelletier said, referring to the behemoth auditing and consulting company.

The allotment of housing is another of her concerns. Homes on the reserve are distributed by the band government in what is sometimes seen as an ad hoc manner. Certain applicants might be offered less desirable land or find themselves unable to get their driveways paved, say, while others appear to have an inside track.

“Nobody knows what the rules are,” Ms. Pelletier said. “That process is a free-for-all depending on who you are.”

Fort William, like many other First Nations, is not fully accountable to either their people or the federal government, Ms. Pelletier believes, leaving them unable to govern effectively by either traditional or colonial measures.

“First Nations are sort of teetering between self-governing and the Indian Act,” she said. “They’re not in balance with the traditional ways and not in balance with the Western standards.”

As chief, Ms. Pelletier says she would issue detailed monthly reports on the business of government and try to bring in a more formalized mortgage program geared to different income levels.

“I’m really strong about rules,” she said.

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In 1933, Fort William First Nation voted to re-elect their chief by an open show of hands, as Mounties looked on. Today, their elections look very different, but are still marred by a colonial legacy, band members say.Thunder Bay Historical Museum

The second day of advance polling is almost done. If the Mounties are long gone, the imperial symbolism is not. Voters file in and out of the Wellington Room at Thunder Bay’s Victoria Inn.

Standing in the hotel’s beige hallway after casting her ballot, Annabelle Bell articulates what these grand British names suggest: In many ways, she and her community are living in someone else’s world.

“They started elections the white man’s way,” Ms. Bell said. “I still think it’s running the white man’s way today.”

Ms. Bell is not wrong. The Indian Act, first enacted in 1876, replaced traditional forms of First Nations governance in many parts of the country. Some 200 First Nations still conduct their elections under the legislation.

This week, Fort William will have its first vote under the more recent First Nations Election Act, which features rules more in line with modern democratic standards, such as four-year terms of office, recounts for close votes and advance polling. More than 60 First Nations have opted in to the system since it was enacted in 2015.

But for all its progressive trappings, the new law does not undo the colonial legacy that Ms. Bell alluded to, simply because it preserves a rigid chief-and-council system that is not traditional for the Ojibwa of Lake Superior.

“The band-council system we have today was imposed,” said Hayden King, an Anishinaabe scholar and executive director of the Yellowhead Institute think tank in Toronto. “It’s a foreign system. It’s a system that is really only designed to achieve federal government objectives.”

Still, the colonial nature of band elections doesn’t keep many members of Fort William from throwing themselves into the process. While voter turnout is typically less than 50 per cent, the ambition and earnestness of civic debate far outstrips that of most communities its size. Even though Ms. Bell said she feels the proceedings are arranged by the “waubshkiweg” − an Anishinaabe term for white people − she was one of a few dozen band members who cast their vote early.

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Fort William First Nation elections campaign signs for a new chief and council.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Bonnie Pelletier’s final meet and greet of the campaign was held at the Fort William First Nation Arena, a big barn of a building popular among Thunder Bay parents who bring their kids to play hockey there.

In many ways, the event resembled a small-town election rally anywhere in the country. Kids ran around a brightly lit basketball court, plastic chairs were arranged in a circle and an air of slightly dutiful citizenship hung over the proceedings.

But differences also stood out − and seemed to suggest the ways in which Anishinaabe tradition could temper and maybe even redeem the deep flaws of Indian Act democracy.

Bannock was served alongside the coffee. Elders played drums and evoked their ancestors. And in a scene you would not likely see during many campaigns for reeve, a young council candidate named Tim Solomon gratefully accepted a smudge from a traditional knowledge keeper, whisking fragrant smoke toward his face with a feather.

Mr. Solomon wore a necklace strung with bullets that he said he had personally used to hunt big game. His long black hair was parted in the middle.

“I’m running to build a bill of rights,” he said. “We need oversight − true oversight.”

It was important to remember the mistakes of the past and the depredations of the Indian agents, he said. Traditional ways were important to him. But First Nations should also try to learn from other government systems. That was the way forward.

“We just need to pull out the best parts of every modern society and put them together to be most protective of people’s rights,” he said. “That way, we can bring together the knowledge of our elders and the knowledge of our youth.”

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