Attawapiskat election under shadow of controversy – by Teresa Smith (Ottawa Citizen – August 26, 2013)

Off-reserve members unable to cast ballots unless they make long, expensive trip north

OTTAWA — With band council elections for the Attawapiskat First Nation set for Tuesday, some off-reserve members are still hoping the chief and council will postpone the vote to deal with widespread concerns the band’s electoral process is unfair.

The current band council and Chief Theresa Spence, who gained national attention for fasting on Victoria Island during the height of the Idle No More protests, are requiring ballots to be cast in person on the reserve Tuesday, making it difficult for band members who live outside the remote northern Cree community to have a say in Attawapiskat’s leadership. Of the First Nation’s 3,351 members, just 1,862 live on the reserve, according to July 2013 numbers from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

“I can’t afford to go all the way there,” said Jocelyn Iahtail, who lives in Ottawa with her daughter. She left the reserve so her son could get the constant medical care he needs for a traumatic brain injury suffered during surgery. “They, of all people, should understand poverty and make it possible for off-reserve members to have a voice.”

On Monday, a return flight from Timmins to Attawapiskat was selling for $1,200. A return from Ottawa was more than $2,000.

From Fort Albany Cree Nation, where Attawapiskat member Mike Koostachin lives, a return ticket costs $400. He can’t really afford to spend that money, but Koostachin said he’ll be making the trek to cast his ballot in person.

“Transparency in Attawapiskat is at zero per cent,” he said. “In my opinion, incompetent people are running our government system, and the same people are running for council again.”

Koostachin was on a special committee of Attawapiskat band members that drafted a new custom election code in early 2010 to bring the band in line with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1999 Corbiere decision, which says all members of a First Nation over the age of 18 — whether they live on- or off-reserve — are entitled to participate in band elections.

Records of community meetings show people also wanted to prevent council members from holding other positions of influence at the same time. In response, the draft code included measures to prevent abuse of power: it put down in writing that councillors should not appoint friends or family members to the band’s decision-making bodies, such as the education authority, health services, and Attawapiskat Resources Inc., which manages the money the band receives from nearby mining developments in the Ring of Fire. It also stipulated that councillors cannot have a criminal record, and could only miss three consecutive council meetings before being dismissed.

Community members voted to approve the new code in June 2010, but former chief Theresa Hall and the band council of the day decided not to ratify it since only 74 of a possible 2,166 eligible voters cast a ballot.

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