The Liard River is seen passing the community of Fort Liard in a file photo. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The Acho Dene Koe First Nation says it is surveying members in a bid to clarify the First Nation’s election process after a rule related to unpaid debts sparked months-long controversy.
The debate over whether the results of an April 26 election for chief are valid has tied up a one-man appeal committee for weeks and occupied time in federal court. One of several disputes related to that election involves the denial of candidate Floyd Bertrand’s nomination as he is alleged to owe an ADKFN business more than $27,500.
Both Bertrand, a former chief of the First Nation, and ADKFN recently filed applications to the federal court to review the legality of the issue.
Citing its election code, which has never been made public, the First Nation said anyone owing more than $500 to ADKFN or one of its companies is not eligible to run for chief or council.
Lawyer Garth Wallbridge, who constitutes the election’s appeal committee, recently ruled Bertrand’s debt was no longer recoverable as the statute of limitations had been exceeded. Since part of the definition of a debt is that it is recoverable, Wallbridge stated, Bertrand was no longer owing.
The First Nation is less sure of that interpretation.
“In the Northwest Territories, the period for recovering debt is generally six years – but there are circumstances that may cause differences in the timeline,” the First Nation said in a statement to its members, suggesting it considers the reported $27,500 to remain a debt owed.
The nature of Bertrand’s alleged debt to ADKFN’s Beaver Enterprises, a company that provides oil and gas construction services, is unclear. The debt is said to date to at least May 2008, when Bertrand was also denied the opportunity to run in an ADKFN election for the same reason.
Council has not yet set a date for a new chief election, as required by the appeal committee, which ordered a new election date to be set by July 23. However, ADKFN told members it agrees a new election is necessary given the apparent issues with April’s vote.
According to Wallbridge, those reasons include a lack of specified voting hours in the election announcement and reports from eight members that they struggle to vote online and could not contact anyone for assistance.
Members given three options in survey
In outlining how its survey of members will work, ADKFN said the appeal committee’s decision “has created some confusion about the debt rule” and so council seeks guidance on that matter.
The survey gives members three options:
ADKFN challenges the appeal committee’s decision in federal court;
ADKFN holds community consultations to clarify the debt rule before calling a new election; or
ADKFN calls a new election immediately and figures out the debt rule afterward.
Under the first option, council would “ask the court to find the appeal committee’s decision interfered with the community’s election law and did not consider the views of the community, and that a new appeal committee must reconsider the evidence of Mr Bertrand’s debt.”
ADKFN would also ask the federal court to rule that a new appeal committee would have authority to order a new election. ADKFN cautioned this “is the most expensive option.”
The second option would seek input from the community “to determine its own election laws by broad consensus of the community,” such as if the debt rule should be applied regardless of the age of the debt and how debt is proven. Under this option, an election would be held “within a reasonable time” and wouldn’t affect the appeal committee’s order that Bertrand be allowed to run, as the committee found there was “insufficient proof of his debt.”
If the third option is selected, a new election for chief would be held as soon as possible and the First Nation would clarify its election laws after the election. It encouraged people to consider “there may be some confusion about how the electoral officer applied the debt rule for this election” if this option is chosen.
Members must submit their responses by 4pm on Wednesday, August 18. They can submit a hard copy of the questionnaire to the band office or can fill out an online survey.
The First Nation is also holding two meetings – one in person at the community centre on Monday night at 6pm, and one virtual meeting on Tuesday at 6pm – where members can “ask questions and seek clarifications” about the survey options and appeal committee’s ruling.
AKDFN filed its application on July 23, the day by which the appeal committee had ordered the First Nation to announce a new election date and the day the Wallbridge released the reasons for that committee’s decision.
“The deadline to file in federal court is July 23 and, if council does not file now, it could lose the opportunity to challenge the orders in the event that the reasons reveal problems in the appeal officer’s decision-making,” the First Nation said in a news release on July 22.
ADKFN’s application calls for the appeal committee’s order to be quashed, either in full or in part; seeks an order for a new appeal committee to consider the election appeals; asks for a declaration that the first appeal committee acted beyond its jurisdiction in ordering that Bertrand be allowed to run in the rescheduled election; and requests a declaration that the appeal committee’s order and reasoning are unreasonable.
Bertrand’s application, filed on August 9, seeks to have ADKFN comply with the appeal committee’s order to hold a new election and appoint a new electoral officer.