First Nations election residency rules being challenged

Who is eligible to run and who isn’t?

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

First Nations electoral policies are being challenged all over the place, and with some success. Last year, for example, a court ruled against the Bigstone Cree Nation in the case of Cardinal vs. Bigstone.

The issue there was a Bigstone policy that only members living on reserve get to run for chief and council. The judge in the case called it discriminatory, and that the off-reserve members were in effect being treated as second-class citizens.

It’s certainly a dilemma. Why should people who live in Edmonton or Slave Lake have as much power as people who live on the reserve? On the other hand, why shouldn’t they be able to run?

First Nations governments are wrestling with such questions in many locations, including Swan River First Nation on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake. A couple of off-reserve members – having been denied the right to run for council – have instigated a legal challenge.

A separate but related application, to have the most recent election delayed was denied by a judge. That decision, by federal court Madame Justice McDonald, is posted on the SRFN website.

“In the case of our band,” says Robert Houle in an email to The Leader, “75 per cent of our membership reside off-reserve, yet are not reflected in the elected leadership. Many off-reserve concerns remain unaddressed and there exist few programs for off-reserve members. Our council has been challenged on the fact that they are discriminating against their off-reserve members, and continue to enforce archaic Indian Act policy.”

The matter is under ‘judicial review.’ As such, the band is not willing to say much about it.

Chief and council prefer to address the matter by consulting with band members, band manager Joe Wadden told The Leader last week. In other words, not through the courts. That presumably means they will be asking members what they think about giving non-resident members the right to run for chief and council.

If the ratio is really three to one in favour of off-reserve members, it’s conceivable control of the SRFN government could go completely over to people who don’t live in the community. Likely? Maybe not, but certainly possible. And this is not an uncommon scenario.

Getting back to the Bigstone situation, despite the decision in Cardinal vs. Bigstone, “it still hasn’t really been clarified,” says Travis A. Gladue of the Bigstone Empowerment Society. “If you live in Edmonton, you’re going to run into a lot more resistance.”

Meanwhile, Wayne Cunningham of Joussard is challenging the Sucker Creek decision to disqualify him from running for chief in the Nov. 2018 election.

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