I know that this blog may be a little off-topic from my usual discussions, but this issue is too important to let slide. A very senior person in Aboriginal politics has made an absolutely insane statement about my Mi’kmaq Nation, our governance practices and our traditions. The record now has to be set straight so that the public does not think Mi’kmaq people are all crooks.
Burnt Church First Nation (also known as Esgenoopetitj) is one of several Mi’kmaq communities in New Brunswick. My home community is Eel River Bar First Nation is only a few hours north of Burnt Church. The Chief of Burnt Church is Wilber Dedham and his term in office has not been without significant controversy.
Earlier this year, a member of Burnt Church filed a complaint with the RCMP alleging that council members participated in vote buying during the election. APTN reported that initially the RCMP refused to investigate the complaint because it did not want to ruin relations with Burnt Church. As some may recall, Burnt Church was the First Nation whose members were run over by DFO boats while they fished for lobster.
Given the large amount of publicity over the matter, the RCMP later changed their minds and decided that they would conduct an investigation afterall. APTN reported that the primary evidence were affidavits signed by several community members detailing how council members offered cash in exchange for votes.
Since that time however, new evidence has appeared on the internet and various media outlets (including APTN) which allegedly shows a council member giving electors cash in exchange for votes. Those being video-taped apparently did not know they were being taped and the name of the person who set up the hidden camera has not yet been released.
Given that the RCMP are investigating this matter, I could have left the issue at that. It is a terrible thing to have allegedly happen in one of our own communities, but I had assumed that the RCMP would ensure that we had all the facts before casting judgment. I think those accused have the right to be considered innoncent of the charges unless and until they are proven guilty. If they are found guilty, those involved should resign or be removed from office.
However, much to the surprise of most Aboriginal people across Canada, AFN Regional Chief Roger Augustine participated in an interview with APTN News last night and actually defended the alleged vote-buying actions in Burnt Church. Not only did he seem to think it happened, but he stated that this is actually part of our tradition as Mi’kmaq people.
Furthermore, he said that we should not look at this like vote-buying, but instead see it as a matter of gift-giving to people who are supporting the candidate – it is a way of saying thank you. He also made the claim that older members would not come out and vote otherwise, and appeared to imply that this is a common occurrence.
First of all, traditionally we as Mi’kmaq people did not have elections. The election system and Chief and Council governance structure was imposed on our people by Canada through the Indian Act. Unless and until Burnt Church negotiates and concludes its own self-government agreement, or it enacts its own custom election code, then the Indian Act and its regulations govern band governance and elections.
Section 78(1) of the Indian Act states that chief and council hold office for two years. The exception to this being those bands who have their own custom election codes, and the last time I checked, Burnt Church was under the Indian Act.
Section 78(1)(b) (iii) permits the Minister to remove a Chief or council member from office if, in connnection with an election, they are guilty of “accepting a bribe, dishonesty or malfeasance”. Malfeasance means misconduct or wrongoing, especially by a public official.
I don’t think there can be any doubt that paying a person money in exchange for a vote is malfeasance. While I have not had time to do much research on the matter, there is also the possibility that the Criminal Code of Canada and/or the Elections Act may have rules against vote-buying as well.
Therefore, the Indian Act, and not tradition, governs Indian Act elections like those held in Burnt Church. Even if it didn’t, Mi’kmaq people did not traditionally vote for their leaders and therefore the claim that vote-buying or “giving gifts of money” for votes is unfounded. I invite anyone who has researched the history of Mi’kmaq people to show me research which confirms that it is our tradition to both hold elections and to buy votes.
For Mr. Augustine to make such claims is irresponsible. It is an embarassment to the organization he represents, the Assembly of First Nations, and to the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet First Nations of the Atlantic Region that he represents. Mr. Augustine should not have said anything about the matter at all as it is being investigated by the RCMP.
I think what Mr. Augustine said on public TV does more harm for First Nations in this country who have enough unfounded allegations to defend, than does an isolated incident of vote-buying.
Mr. Augustine should resign from his position as AFN Regional Vice Chief and if he does not, the National Chief Shawn Atleo should fire him – no different than Canada firing one of its Ministers for misconduct. Mr. Augustine should also apologize for making the unfounded claim that it is part of Mi’kmaq tradition to buy votes.
I do hope that the RCMP investigate the matter in Burnt Church and if individuals are found guilty, that they resign. That way, the community can move forward to ensure these things don’t happen again.