Corruption in politics is nothing new. It’s been around as long as people have had held positions of responsibility and power over others.
In particular, corruption amongst the leadership on various First Nation reserves is a story that has been told many times. However, the situation at Canoe Lake Cree First Nation is more complicated than past examples of corruption. Its roots lie far deeper than most.
Earlier this year, the CBC covered the vote-buying scheme that took place during the last election of the band’s chief and council in December 2016.
The findings of the subsequent RCMP investigation found the allegations largely “unsubstantiated,” citing their witnesses lacked “reliability and credibility.”
While the case ultimately went nowhere, due to the main whistleblower, Larry Iron, backing off his earlier affidavits stating that he had engaged in vote-buying to help the chief and council gain re-election, the community was left with a leadership that many felt was “illegitimate.”
Leonard Iron, one of the band members involved in fighting against the corrupt vote, spoke with The Post Millennial about what things are like on reserve.
“Things in the community are falling apart. There’s nobody to turn to for leadership.”
“The people at the bottom have no power. So we have to give ourselves that power. But we have to have true leadership to allow us to have that power to put in place. Under proper leadership, things can change under the pressure of a large commitment by the people who are elected.”
While Iron did not think that significant structural changes needed to be made to the governing system on reserve, he did feel a few tweaks along with renewed and transparent leadership would go a long way.
“Coming from the people, for the people and by the people. It’s a wonderful thing they have in their (American) constitution. Instead of focusing all the power with seven elected people who can do anything they want with that power, we need some more checks and balances.”
These frustrations were echoed in a letter to Indian Affairs by the former Chief of Canoe Lake Cree First Nation.
He writes, “A sudden, dramatic and permanent change to our leadership selection process was imposed upon the Canoe Lake Membership by our Band Council, and the Minister, without any community-wide debate and discussion to obtain our informed majority support and consent.”
A Ministerial Order (BCR #19-2016) signed on September 16th, 2016, added Canoe Lake First Nation to the Schedule of Participating First Nations regarding the First Nations Election Act. According to section 28(1), subscribing First Nations hold elections every four years, rather than two.
Judith Iron states, “[Chief Francis Iron’s] first term [was] for two years and now they snuck in a four-year term, somehow. Someway, they snuck it in.”
“Deliberately misleading information” was presented by the council to Band Membership, writes the former Chief.
Joseph Guy Lariviere was critical of Indian Affairs, along with the council, stating, “[they bear] an equal portion of the blame for this blatant disregard for Band Member democratic rights and [the] dictatorial imposition of change.”
Without the appropriate consultations, “the election conducted in December of 2016 under the First Nations Election Act was illegitimate.” Lariviere called for the election result to be treated as “Null and Void.”
Minister Bennett: Implementing UNDRIP “shouldn’t be scary.”
On April 25th, 2017, Minister Bennett spoke to the efforts undertaken to correct “centuries of wrongs” at the expense of Indigenous Canadians.
At the 16th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum, Minister Bennett states, “Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, the past North American representative of this forum, uses a sweetgrass metaphor to describe the three distinct pathways to reconciliation and self-determination in Canada: the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People; honouring our treaties, claims and other agreements; and working towards new recognition of rights.”
“Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People shouldn’t be scary. The Declaration’s principles of free, prior and informed consent are now.”
Given the supposed “illegitimacy” of the 2016 election, the promise of “informed consent” seems rich.
Putting forth a genuine effort to reconcile our differences is vital, as far as Reconciliation is concerned. However, the vitriol and empowering message lose its lustre without subsequent action.
“We have developed a new, more flexible paths to the recognition of rights and jurisdiction and self-determination,” says Minister Bennett during her speech.
“There are centuries of wrongs to right, but their interlinked efforts are merging like the braided sweetgrass to take our country forward in a good way strengthened by the recognition of the rights of indigenous people.”
In a recent conversation with Lariviere, he states” Minister Bennett’s office claimed [to have] sent [a response to my letter]. I did not receive that letter.”
Failing to practice what was preached in Canoe Lake proved detrimental to its residents, as living conditions continue to deteriorate across the Reserve.
“Our future is very bleak,” says Judith in response to on-reserve living conditions.
As an on off-reserve band member, Judith Iron returned to care for her eighty-six-year-old father, who was battling cancer at the time.
Upon arrival, she was shocked to see the living conditions on the reserve. In the case of her father, his residence was in a state of disrepair.
“He told me they had a house for me, and I’d have to repair it. Council built ten brand new houses for their relatives while neglecting on-reserve members.”
“I’ve lived in the city most of my life, but when I was told living conditions in homes we’re deteriorating, toilets were leaking, and walls crumbling, I knew I had to step in.”
“The fact the Chief has not done repairs or renovations for two years, despite claiming he was not getting money for it was not true. At the time, he was building himself a house by the lake using band employees and resources.”
When confronting the band council on the matter, she was not permitted entrance into an elder band meeting, December 6th, 2018. “Councillor Bernice Iron tried to throw me out of the elders gathering.”
“My dad told her I was going to drive him and a couple more elders to the meeting, which she was okay with it at that time, if I played nice. However, when we arrived, she tried to kick me out. She told me I was not welcome there.”
“However, Judith was begrudgingly allowed to attend the meeting following the confrontation.”
“An audio recording of the altercation was posted on Facebook.”
Even worse than the dilapidated and crumbling structures in which many Canoe Lake residents reside in is the failure of the Band Office to provide alternative emergency service numbers during the times where the leadership decides to close it down and reward their “faithful employees” with extravagant trips.
“Now it’s summertime. They’re going on their holidays spending about $300,000 that could have gone towards education and health care. They always go to Vegas at the end of May, come back to host other events and take off again for Calgary Stampede. It’s like, Okay, are you guys ever going to work?”
Minor goes missing for two days, and the council was nowhere to be found
In mid-July, a minor went missing at Canoe Lake for two days after band members discovered her in immense discomfort.
One of the perpetrators recorded the encounter, while the other – both who were minors – assaulted the victim. During the encounter, the former uttered “Okay, go” before the deliberate attack took place.
She then hid in a ditch underneath two bushes until fellow band members were able to locate her.
With broken ribs and a sprained arm, she was “scared and terrified,” says Judith.
“She was uncomfortable, and [our council] did nothing. [Naturally] I called their office and heard the Chief was on personal leave. When I found out they were too busy with their stampede at their music festival, I recorded the voicemail and put it on my page.”
“[The on-reserve members] received a notice that the band office is closing and will open again until August. They don’t post emergency numbers, so nobody knows who they’re supposed to contact for things. The band members are left to fend for themselves, as when they phone the band office, nobody is there.”
Where does Canoe Lake go from here?
Todd Mackay of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said he was not surprised by the corruption and condition at Canoe Lake, as they’ve received complaints like this regularly from First Nations Reserves across the country.
In a media release that was never made by public by Canoe Lake Council, Chief Iron states, “The people who deserve respect and who are respected in our community, are those who have been working together to rebuild our First Nation.”
Citing “colonialism” and the “residential school experience” for the economic hardship of many is permissible, but failing to take responsibility for their hand in current troubles is not.
“With the teachings I have received from my father and our Elders, our community is moving forward, and we are building again.”
Allegedly purchasing the votes of elders is neither forward-thinking nor respectful of their contributions, past and present, brings a conflicting message forthwith
An unfortunate reality we must face as Indigenous Canadians are this: colonialism is not the only reason for on-reserve hardship.
From Minister Bennett to Canoe Lake Cree First Nations, one thing for certain. We need to do better. That’s not up for debate.