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New election rules rankle residents

First Nation prevents 80 per cent of residents from being nominated

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper

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Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper (JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Garden Hill First Nation has set up new rules that eliminate 80 per cent of residents from running for political office.

Under the rules, no one under age 50 may run for chief and no one under 40 for council. Further, people in common-law relationships will not be allowed to run for either chief or council.

Younger members of the northern Manitoba First Nation feel shut out of the political process in the wake of the new rules restricting candidates on the basis of age and marital status.

The exact wording of notices posted throughout the community aren't grammatical but they are dramatic. They read:

  • "Four chiefs to run this coming election. It has to be 50 years of age and over to run chief. One chief in chambers."
  • "16 councillors to run in this coming election. It has to be 40 years of age and over to run councillor. They will be eight councillors in chambers."
  • Six months to reside in reserve to run candidate.
  • "Deceased person, husband or wife, marriage couples, as long as not living common law to run candidate." This is likely a reference to eligibility requirements for widows and widowers, not a reference to the dead.
  • Left unspoken is another restriction: Openly gay people need not apply for political office. "They didn't write that one down," one frustrated 20-something man said. "Gays are run out of the community or they commit suicide. Suicides here are either related to drugs or gender."
  • There are only four laws for custom governance in Garden Hill. Chief and council must be alcohol-free, substance-abuse-free and drug-free. They can't fool around with someone else's spouse and they have to keep clean financial and administration records.

Source: Garden Hill First Nation nomination rules and interviews

Garden Hill First Nation, 980 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, set new rules a week ago for nominations for the election to be held March 26.

Garden Hill is a fly-in Oji-Cree First Nation dominated by young people who are furious their elders have turned on them. Some have threatened violence.

Many young adults are scared to openly defy elders. So people in their 20s and 30s anonymously leaked a set of new rules for candidates that openly violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and protested them in a series of phone calls to the Free Press and on social media.

Some plan to boycott the election in response. Others see it as a lost cause.

"It's the end of us... we're not going to vote," one man said. "Eighty per cent of this community is under 40 and us, the young people, we need some attention. We need public attention, media attention. This is discrimination."

Some radical elements are starting an alarming buzz over retaliation.

"The Krazies, they're the biggest gang in Garden Hill and they're talking about burning down the band hall to stop the election," one Garden Hill man said.

The electoral officer said the RCMP have yet to be alerted to the possibility of trouble.

Garden Hill has about 5,000 residents.

The First Nation, which is part of the Island Lake region, is better known for its lack of running water than its acrimonious politics.

But there's a generational and culture clash that's tearing this devoutly Christian community apart right now and the reverberations are being felt all the way to Ottawa.

The office of federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt is monitoring the election closely. In a recent interview in which Valcourt praised the powers of self-government during the proclamation of self-government for Sioux Valley, he nevertheless set limits for First Nations. "What is important for the general public to know is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms continue to apply," said Valcourt.

A spokeswoman said Ottawa expected to comment specifically on Garden Hill in the next day or two.

Karen Busby, a human rights expert at the University of Manitoba, said Tuesday the nomination rules clearly violate the charter and unless the community can prove those rules -- and the process that set them in motion -- can be defended as an aboriginal right, they're not protected under the Constitution.

"Here's the huge problem," said Busby, a professor of law and the director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the U of M.

"You have to show it was a practice prior to European contact, that this is indigenous law. If this ended up in court, they'd lose," Busby predicted.

Grand Chief David Harper, the leader of the northern chiefs' Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said he wouldn't qualify to run for chief under the new rules. He's 47 years old and in a common-law relationship. He said the rules are clearly discriminatory.

"There are violations of human rights here and they're looking at it (for the next election), but they have to go with the existing process this time. In future, something has to change," said Harper, who is from Garden Hill.

The dilemma is nobody can change the rules for this election, Harper said.

"We're closely monitoring what's happening in Garden Hill and for now we have to let the election play out. That's the process. But they have to fix it, the process too," Harper said.

Since 1969, Garden Hill has run its elections by holding "preparation meetings" seven days ahead of nominations for chief and council. These meetings set eligibility rules for candidates.

There is no appeal mechanism and no way to hit the reset button if something goes wrong, meaning glaring faults can twist the democratic process even if the intent is to draw fresh candidates, as it was this time, Harper said.

Worse, terms are nominally two years but not necessarily. An administration can be turned out of office any time by a community vote, injecting instability into the process each time an election is called. That's what happened to the most recent chief and council, who were removed earlier this month.

"If you're not in favour with the people, you don't last," Harper said. "I got booted out three times and after a while, it doesn't hurt anymore."

The decision to institute the age and marital rules was made last week by about 30 middle-aged people who attended the preparation meeting last week, called by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which offered an independent electoral officer to supervise the election.

Electoral officer Ivan Harper said he called the meeting, as per custom, and saw immediately that nobody under 30 showed up; but the die was cast.

Nominations are today and it's too late to rewrite the rules now, he said.

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