(New Cote Chief and Council: Back row from left to right: Darryl Langan, Tyrone Keshane, Trevor Severight, Terry Keewatin, Al Cote, Guy Cote, Jaret Stevenson Front row from left to right: Thelma Severight, Jennifer Tourangeau, Chief George Cote, Norrine Cote, Pam Whitehawk, and Ketha Caldwell Cote)
APTN National News
An embattled Saskatchewan First Nation took to the polls on the last long weekend of summer and emerged with a fresh new council.
Cote, located an hour northeast of Yorkton near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, is a Treaty 4 Saulteaux community of 3,800 people.
It’s been in the news in the past few years for allegations of theft, mismanagement, corruption and waste by band leadership.
APTN news crews have made numerous visits to cover stories. Twice reporters have been kicked off by band council members, many of whom hoped to retain their seats in the Sept. 3 election.
Chief Norman Whitehawk, at the centre of the storm, didn’t seek re-election. Of six people looking to fill the chief spot, George Cote took 261 votes, 41 ahead of his nearest challenger.
According to notices posted by electoral officer Burke Ratte, 1001 ballots were cast in the vote. It’s not immediately clear what percent of the voter turnout that represents. Fewer than 20 ballots were spoiled.
In the end, a new council took shape.
Forty six people vied for 12 council positions. Only three from the previous council retained their seats: Al Cote, Guy Cote and Thelma Severight. Six veterans lost theirs.
Severeight edged into the 12th council seat and a vote recount was requested over concerns that a family member was counting the ballots. Ratte denied the request and has refused to answer questions as to why he granted one recount request and not another.
He did not return repeated phone calls by APTN.
While the 12th council seat remains a point of contention in the community, the overall election result is being applauded.
“The young people came out and out-voted all the old council,” said band member George Tourangeau, one of a group of disgruntled band members involved in a lawsuit against the Government of Canada. APTN Investigates exclusively reported last year that lawsuit – the first of its kind in Canada — sought to have the Indian Act scrapped for Cote First Nation, blaming that legislation for the discord with chief and council.
Cote elder Hilliard Friday is one of the plaintiffs.
“Indian Act chief and council, Assembly of First Nations, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, district chiefs, things like that, they all operate under the same thing. We can’t go get help here to correct the system—they’re all operating under the same thing,” he told APTN Investigates last winter. “There’s corruption throughout the whole system.”
Friday and fellow elder William Whitehawk ran for council despite their opposing Indian Act-sanctioned elections. They were both unsuccessful.
Despite that, Whitehawk says he’s hopeful this largely new council will take the community in a new direction.
“The ones that needed to be out are out,” he said. “I think (the new chief) has a good idea how to manage stuff.”
Chief-elect George Cote has been manager of the Yorkton Parkland Housing Society for 20 years, a low-income housing initiative. He resigned after his electoral victory.
Calls to his home and the band office for comment went unanswered.
On the eve of the weekend election, documents surfaced on social media seeming to show an audit revealed six figure salaries for 17 months of work for many of the previous leaders.
Reaction on the thread seemed to suggest change was in the air.
In the meantime, the class-action lawsuit by fed-up Cote band members against Canada remains before the court.