First Nations experts are under pressure from the federal government to hold elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Saskatchewan First Nation moves forward on Friday despite calls from its own emergency management team to postpone 30 days.
“They are forcing the First Nations people into a really terrible dilemma. This is a huge health risk, “said lawyer Maggie Wente, whose Ontario cabinet works with Aboriginal communities across Canada.
A number of First Nations across the country are expected to move forward with their votes in the coming weeks. Others, such as the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, have already done so. Some, such as the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, report.
In an internal email obtained by CBC News, Yves Denoncourt, Acting Director of the Federal Government’s Aboriginal Governance Operations Directorate, said that First Nations have the right to postpone their own elections, but that they are not allowed to extend the terms of current leaders.
“At the end of its mandate, a First Nation will face a governance problem,” Denoncourt wrote in an email sent to more than two dozen government employees last week.
Officials responsible for cleaning the tables “every 5 to 10 voters”
Denoncourt describes the measures that First Nations must take to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19. Election officials must provide 50 pens and pencils and clean them after each use; voters should be encouraged to bring their own pens and pencils; and the polling tables and screens should be cleaned “every 5 to 10 voters”.
Up to 50 people will be allowed to enter each polling station, although Denoncourt noted that any stricter provincial decree would be given priority. In Saskatchewan, for example, rallies of more than 10 people were banned from Thursday.
Wente said several of his First Nations clients were panicking. They do not want to endanger people, especially the elderly. But they are confused and scared by federal rules, she said.
They wonder if the federal government will refuse to deal with their community in the event of a “governance deficit”, delaying or stopping vital supplies or economic aid, said Wente.
“I mean it seemed very threatening,” said Wente. “” We will not accept your government if you decide to extend your own term and so you should bring disinfectant and pencils to the polls “, which had a real kind of attitude,” Let them eat cake “, that I found it really unpleasant. ”
“Delicate and unfair situation”, says the professor
CBC News showed the email to University of Saskatchewan law professor Dwight Newman, who said the First Nations were right to worry.
“There is a real problem here. This is not how other orders of government are treated, “said Newman, Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Rights in Constitutional Law.
“It is a delicate and unfair situation where they seem to be under pressure to hold the elections.”
In Saskatchewan, the Red Pheasant Cree Nation voted last week. In videos posted on social media, groups of a dozen or more people sat together on stands in the electoral hall, while volunteers sat side by side at tables without gloves or masks.
The Nekaneet First Nation’s vote took place on Wednesday. An official from the Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation has confirmed that its 3,500 members will vote on Friday.
The Beardy manager, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said that the group’s emergency management team had asked for 30 days. But after the election officials got legal advice, they decided they should move on.
“All we can do now is recommend the safe course of action,” said the official.
Indian Act has strict rules
Wente and Newman said that the big problem is the Federal Indian Act, which establishes strict rules on most aspects of First Nations governance, including fixed electoral mandates.
Newman said the cabinet could issue an exception order in this case or in the case of all pandemics.
He added that federal agencies could also announce that they will recognize chiefs and councils in place for a fixed period. He said it could probably be done in a way that withstands the challenges of other candidates.
Vanessa Adams, an official in the office of Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, said in a written statement that “the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples is our only goal.”
She also said that they “will work to ensure that there are no gaps in governance during this health crisis”.
But Adams will not say whether the government will reconsider its position on the tenure of First Nations chiefs and councils.