While Tl’etinqox (Anaham) Chief Joe Alphonse welcomes changes to the First Nations Elections Act he questions whether longer terms in office for chiefs and councillors is the answer.
Under Bill S-6, the proposed First Nations Elections Act, changes would see the terms of office go to four years, instead of two, for chiefs and councillors, and a specific election date set for First Nations elections across the country.
First Nations, however, would have the right to opt in or not, in the elections code when and if it is passed.
According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, there are currently 240 First Nations communities in Canada that hold elections under the Indian Act electoral system; 341 First Nations communities hold elections under their community or custom election code; and 36 select leaders under self-government agreements.
Alphonse says most First Nations have been voicing the need for changes to the act all along, though he personally prefers the two-year terms.
He says if a band council has the right person in it, the term is never long enough; and no matter how short the term is, if the wrong individual is in, then the term is too long.
“There’s got to be a happy medium,” Alphonse says. “I’m on my second term of a two-year term and it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I viewed my re-election as a vote of confidence.”
Opting into the new Elections Act if it is passed by Parliament is something Alphonse may consider down the road, but for now he feels it’s important for his community to continue holding its elections under the Indian Act.
Many of the Tsilhqot’in First Nations such as Yunest’in (Stone), ?Esdilagh (Alexandria) and Tsi Del Del (Alexis Creek), are on their last term under the Indian Act for elections, explains Alphonse.
They are switching to a custom system to establish their own.
“We’re the only community that would remain within the INAC system. With the characters we have in our community we still need to have the ability to call to an outside source if need be,” Alphonse says, adding it’s a serious concern in his community, while it may be less so in others.
Xeni Gwet’in (Nemiah Valley) has had five-year terms for its chief and councillors for more than a decade, says Chief Marilyn Baptiste, adding her community won’t be opting for the four-year terms.
“My community has always been under the custom community code,” Baptiste says. “In our custom code, our terms had been changed by former Chief Roger [William] to five years. With this government process and the elections bill, I think it’s a process to reflect more respect onto our First Nations communities in regards to a four-year term rather than a two-year term, which is absolutely ludicrous.”
She says two-year terms were probably put in place decades ago for a particular reason, but that they have torn communities apart over the years.
“You know how government process is; it probably takes longer than that to get anything going with government,” she says.
One election aspect her community will review is the present option of phone-in voting for the voting membership.
“We’ve discussed mail-in ballots, but there’s also the fear of how you control such a process,” Baptiste says.
During the first reading of the bill in Parliament last week Nunavut Senator Dennis Glen Patterson argued the longer terms will “empower elected First Nations officials to plan and carry out long-term projects and work much more closely and productively with partners, investors, neighbouring municipal governments and other First Nations communities.”
Baptiste, on the other hand, says the priority for her community is to protect its land base, aboriginal rights and title.
“In our community we have been working on different processes for some years such as ecosystem base planning processes, access management plans, different cultural tourism opportunities, and different processes for the basis of our economy,” she says.