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Swan River: Questions of voting rights continue to plague First Nations

Some First Nation members are finding it hard to run for office in their communities because of spending time off the reserves.
Travis Gladue-Beauregard and Lucas Holtvluwer Montreal, QC

Despite the 1999 Supreme Court ruling that granted equal voting rights to both on and off-reserve band members, the issue of who can vote and run for office on a reserve continues to create strife amongst First Nation communities.

In the Alberta Treaty Eight territory region Swan River, this issue has recently come to a head with a dispute between the local Chief, Council and Shauna Jean, an off-reserve member who wants to run for the position of Chief.

She and her brother, Rob Houle, who was nominated to run for councillor but also lives off-reserve, both had their applications denied by the electoral officer because of some existing codes in the local band electoral code that seem to prohibit their candidacy because of their living location, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The Chief and Council argue that since Swan River is a section 10 band, they have complete control over their membership list and voting restriction, and therefore have no obligation to all off-reserve members the right to vote and run for office.

However, given the murky nature of the bands current set of elections codes in this particular area, a review has been commissioned and is underway presently.

Meanwhile, Houle spoke to The Post Millennial via email.

“Me and my sister have been involved in a legal battle with our band following the denial of our nominations during the recent election. Our band has an outdated election code which requires residency before being eligible for nomination. This requirement has been struck down in the courts numerous times, most recently in Cardinal v Bigstone, and is currently also being challenged in Sucker Creek,” said Houle.

“What makes it even more troubling, is that in the case of our band, 75% of our membership reside off-reserve, yet are not reflected in the elected leadership. Many off-reserve concerns remain unaddressed and there exist few programs for off-reserve members. Our council has been challenged on the fact that they are discriminating against their off-reserve members, and continue to enforce archaic Indian Act policy.”

This is the conundrum many off-reserve band members find themselves in if they want to return to band life and help contribute to their communities by running for elected office. Many of these people leave the reserve in their late teens to seek out a better education or a job opportunity in the broader public. However, when they have succeeded and put themselves in a position where they are able to help their fellow band members upon their return, all too often they are stymied by local regulations that don’t reflect the Supreme Court’s decision.

The federal government has historically been hesitant to get involved in these issues, usually deferring to the courts to sort out these complicated matters. In this case, the Jeans and Swan River are fighting this through the courts.

Just last year, another Alberta First Nation, Bigstone Cree, went through a similar process which ended up with a court ruling that sided with off-reserve members and gave them the right to vote and run for office.

In Bigstone’s case, approximately half of their members live off-reserve. The Jeans are hoping that with 75% of Swan River’s population living off-reserve, they can achieve a similar result.

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Travis Gladue-Beauregard and Lucas Holtvluwer
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