Some members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation want chief and council removed from office following their decision to indefinitely suspend the nation’s 2020 election.
Earlier this week, a small crowd gathered outside the First Nation’s office in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, with signs reading “We want an election now” and “You have broken the election code.” A demonstration was also held in Edmonton.
“People are concerned that they weren’t contacted and feel that they have been dismissed regarding the election being extended,” suspended councillor Rubi Helen Shirley told Cabin Radio.
“I would like to see an election take place because the majority of people that I’m hearing from are wanting a new leadership. They don’t like operating with a broken governance.”
Under the Mikisew Cree First Nation’s customary election regulations, chief and council elections are held every three years on Treaty Day – set to take place on June 20 this year. On April 22, however, chief and council announced in a letter that they would be extending their term for three months and postponing the election to protect public health during the pandemic.
A new federal regulation, enacted in response to the pandemic, allows First Nation councils to extend their terms and postpone elections for an initial six months to prevent, mitigate, or control the spread of disease – even if their custom regulations don’t provide for such a situation.
However, some Mikisew Cree members aren’t happy that the First Nation’s custom regulations aren’t being followed. They say the decision infringes on their democratic rights.
They argue an election can be held safely if precautionary measures are put in place, like mail-in ballots and restricting the number of people at polling stations.
First Nation members Roy Vermillion and David Tuccaro outlined their concerns in a letter to chief and council on May 10, accusing them of not consulting members and saying their decision to postpone the election was made in bad faith. They say the advice of Alberta’s chief medical health officer and the province’s Covid-19 recovery plan don’t support the decision.
In a May 13 response, Chief Archie Waquan said the decision “was not made lightly” but the health of Mikisew Cree members is a priority. He said council is following guidance from the federal government, not Alberta.
Waquan rejected the suggestion that members be allowed to vote by mail, saying the First Nation’s election code does not allow for that. He said council was reviewing the situation weekly and would hold an election as soon as it could be done safely.
“Given housing densities and the very nature of our communities, and the isolation of our communities, any outbreak of infection could have potentially catastrophic results,” he wrote.
A Mikisew Cree First Nation member in a submitted photo taken at a protest in Fort Chipewyan.
In an open letter, the Mikisew Cree Elders’ senate backed the decision by chief and council.
“They did not make this decision so that they could continue to lead the Nation, for pay or for any personal gain, or for any other unthinkable reasons. Simply put, it was for the safety of all our members,” the letter states.
A petition is currently circulating seeking to remove chief and council from office. Under the First Nation’s customary election regulations, 100 signatures are required for that to happen. According to the petition’s organizers, it has garnered 130 signatures.
The matter is now before federal court as Vermillion and Tuccaro have applied for a judicial review of chief and council’s decision.
Concerns about the postponed election follow what Vermillion referred to as a “governance crisis.”
According to Vermillion, after chief and council were elected in 2017, a petition was launched to remove two councillors from office over allegations they did not live on-reserve in Fort Chipewyan. In December 2018, Vermillion said three councillors who supported that petition were suspended “without due process or legal authority to do so.”
Chief Waquan, however, has said the councillors were suspended properly following an “attempted takeover” of the First Nation’s administration building. He said legal action was initiated to restore order and councillors were told they could return to work if they apologized to First Nation staff and provided an undertaking not to behave that way in the future.
That decision is also before the federal court.
Chief Waquan and the three active councillors did not respond to Cabin Radio’s request for comment by the time of publication.