‘I’m excited’: First Nations women set to participate in election after Whitefish Lake amends its law

Two members of Whitefish Lake First Nation in Alberta are set to vote for the first time in their band’s election after being excluded because of the community’s election code.

Karen McCarthy is one of them. As a child of a mother who married a non-First Nations man, she didn’t have status under the Indian Act until 1985 when Bill C-31 passed. The federal law amended the act to allow women who married non-Indigenous men to keep their status and participate in elections.

The problem is that Whitefish Lake First Nation didn’t amend its election code so McCarthy wasn’t allowed to vote.

“In 2020, I decided to challenge our election and out of that, it was a judicial review that I requested, based on the fact that it is discrimination against my mother, my mother’s generation, my generation, and my children’s generation,” she told APTN News.

Lorna Jackson-Littlewolfe was also not allowed to vote – or run for leadership because she was in a common law relationship but not officially married. She wanted to run for council and maybe even chief.

“In the past three years I’ve been encouraged by family and by everybody else,” she said. “I believe you don’t need to be married. Eleven years with my common law, I’m sure proves that I’m committed to this relationship.”

Jackson-Littlewolfe also took the band to court saying that she was being discriminated against. Whitefish Lake First Nation is part of Saddle Lake Cree Nation. The latter did amend its election code in 2017 after a court case. Whitefish Lake didn’t.

In 2023, a judicial review which allows citizens to challenge current or proposed laws, concluded that preventing members from voting was discrimination and ordered the band to amend its code – which it did.

“It was a slam dunk case,” McCarthy said. “There was so much precedent that was set. There were very little legal reasons to exclude us because we are full band members under the Indian Act of being in a Section 11 band, where everyone on the general list is a full band member.”

Jackson-Littlwolfe is running for a seat on council for the first time on April 12.

“I’m really excited. I just want to do right by my people. For my people. And give them a voice, that was always, just that voice to be heard. To be listened to,” she said.

McCarthy is looking forward to being a first time voter.

“A week ago I went to one of the organizations that have posted our voters list in Edmonton, and I went to check. I was told my name was on there, but I had to see for myself. So I saw my name, and I saw my son’s and my daughter’s … So that really hit home,” she said.

“I felt very, very proud of myself.”

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