Gwichya Gwich’in members turning to petitions, courts to appeal election

Gwichya Gwich’in members turning to petitions, courts to appeal election
Gwichya Gwich’in Band consultant and former election officer Graeme Drew.Photo: Lawrence Norbert.

Members of the Gwichya Gwich’in Band (GGB) of Tsiigehtchic are continuing to appeal the community’s recent election, in which the incumbent chief was acclaimed to his position using a draft election code.

Five letters of appeal sent by GGB members to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) have gone unanswered, forcing appellants to use alternative measures to overturn the acclamation of Chief Phillip Blake, who took an oath of office on July 9.

One member, Robyn Lennie, has started an online petition, an option laid out under section 16 of the new election code.

“What I’m hoping to attain with this petition is enough eligible signatures to hopefully remove chief and council from their seats to allow the time needed to properly orchestrate a fair election,” Lennie said.

Another appellant, Anna May MacLeod, is asking to press charges against the band for breaching election code laws. Others have suggested using a judicial review process to overturn the election.

“It’s unfortunate because it gets into the courts, but there is a lot of criteria that would justify the five appellants considering filing a joint application for a judicial review by the federal court of Canada and it would be for errors of law committed by the Gwichya Gwich’in Band,” said Graeme Drew, a consultant hired by the band to aid in the creation of the election code, who was also appointed chief electoral officer.

A fracture in the process

Over the past year, the GGB participated in an AANDC-funded pilot project to write a new election code for the community, in order to replace problematic proxy voting with telephone and electronic vote casting. The new code was intended to be ratified in time for this year’s election in June, but multiple referendums that were short of quorum pushed the ratification back to June 15.

A breakdown of communication between the current band council and an appointed election committee started when Blake filed a letter of appeal in an attempt to bar his opponent Grace Blake from entering the run for chief because she was not listed as a band member, though she had held the position in the past.

Blake submitted his letter to the existing election committee using band letterhead, an action the committee deemed inappropriate.

When the election committee refuted Blake’s appeal using previous case law and electoral guidelines as evidence to back up their decision, they said he became uncooperative. He pushed for an election to take place, despite the fact the code had not yet been ratified.

“We came to a stalemate over the issue. We began to feel quite strongly that even though the code was doing its job, we didn’t feel as comfortable being empowered with the right to enforce these laws because they hadn’t yet been ratified and we were putting the cart before the horse,” Drew said. “We basically decided to defer the election.”

On June 2, Drew and the election committee members announced they would be resigning. According to Drew, their intent was always to return to the committee once the code had been ratified.

Upon the committee’s resignation, the band took it upon themselves to appoint a new election committee composed solely of the band’s finance director Cyril Clancy, unbeknownst to those who had deferred. They also named Liz Gordon as the new election officer. On June 12, these new officials acclaimed Blake to the position of chief.

“I was totally unaware that all of this was happening, so I can only assume how many more members are out of the loop,” Lennie said. “Myself, along with all of my immediate family members that are registered voters, did not even receive a voter’s package. I assumed that the elections were going to be postponed until August 2015 to allow the ratification of the custom elections code.”

Pushing forward for democracy

The frustrated members have called upon both AANDC and the NWT government to aid with the election turnover, to no avail.

“The Gwichya Gwich’in First Nation selects its leadership under a custom community system (custom code), meaning the process is outside of the electoral provisions of the Indian Act,” reads a statement from AANDC. “As such, the department has no role to play as to how the community’s leadership is selected or how any disputes arising from an election or a ratification vote are resolved.”

At the end of the day, Drew said the GGB members rallying against the band council want to exercise their democratic rights.

“The good news that’s lost in all of this swirl of controversy is that this is a very historic milestone that the band has achieved,” Drew said. “For the first time in their history, they’ve actually got a set of written laws that can ensure a higher level of integrity, fairness and transparency in future elections. The pinch right now is whether this is going to be honoured in light of the recent so-called acclamation of this chief and their councillors.”

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