First Nations but second tier democracy

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Appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press

The concept of “democracy” is important to many Canadians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has received awards identifying him as a “champion of democracy, freedom and human rights” and the government has frequently spoken out against democratic violations in other countries.

Here at home, there has been a great deal of discussion in recent weeks around the federal government’s proposed Fair Elections Act, which looks to reform Canada’s existing election laws. These proposed reforms have resulted in public outcry from some elected officials, leading to town halls, countless media panels, extensive debates in the House of Commons, and even a public letter writing campaign from a group of international scholars. And rightfully so, election laws are the cornerstone of a democracy and any proposed reforms should be the subject of analysis and rigorous debate.

So as international champions of democracy and with so much debate over federal election reforms, how would you expect our elected officials to react when democratic rights are being stifled in First Nations communities in Canada? Unfortunately, in recent weeks, they’ve responded with neglect and evasion.

Garden Hill First Nation, a community of over 5,000 members in Manitoba, elected a new Chief and Council on April 3rd.  Few Canadians have probably heard about this election or the rules under which it was conducted, rules that do not meet standards that most would expect in Canada.

This election was subject to a new law approved in Garden Hill in early March that imposed significant restrictions on who can stand for election. Among the changes set out are requirements that candidates for Chief must be at least 50 years of age, Councillors must be at least 40 years of age and anyone in a common-law relationship is ineligible to run for office. These new provisions have resulted in more than 80 per cent of the Garden Hill community being ineligible to run for their local government. Some legal experts have argued that the new laws violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Young Garden Hill residents, who have essentially been excluded from the democratic process, publically voiced their opposition and concern with the new election laws. However, there was no public outcry by our elected officials on these discriminatory practices, no media panels, no letter writing campaigns just a simple statement from the federal government which said “AANDC (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) has no role in the selection of community leadership, or how governance disputes are resolved." In other words, the government intends to stand idle in the face of this subversion of the electoral process.

In fact, it’s worse than that, the government will continue to transfer over $30 million in taxpayer funds to the new Chief and Council who were elected under these new discriminatory election laws.

And under what justification? That is, how can a government that stands up for electoral rights abroad stay silent about exclusionary laws at home? Well, the government recognizes community or custom election codes that “provide the rules under which chiefs and councilors are chosen for those First Nations who are not under the Indian Act election rules.” The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) states that it “is never involved in the election processes held under community or custom election codes, nor will it interpret, decide on the validity of the process.” So even if elections are held under a discriminatory process the federal government has opted to remain a silent bystander thereby effectively legitimizing an undemocratic process.
The fact that in 2014 a Canadian would be prohibited from running for local leadership because of their age and marital status is appalling. Even more troubling, our elected officials are standing silently on the sidelines and legitimizing this undemocratic process. We’ve heard countless political leaders from all parties stress the need for citizens, particularly youth, to be active members in Canada’s democratic process. It’s unfortunate that these same leaders stayed silent while 80 per cent of Garden Hill’s members were denied the opportunity to run for local government and in effect, living under second tier democracy.

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