A candidate who was left off the ballot in Thursday’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations election is hoping a federal court will step in at the last minute and delay the vote.
Former Onion Lake Cree Nation chief Wallace Fox, who is one of four disqualified candidates, told APTN News via text message he “had no choice but to seek the federal court.”
A total of 13 candidates have been approved to run for chief and all four vice-chief positions which are also up for re-election.
This includes incumbent chief Bobby Cameron who is seeking another term.
Fox, former Piapot First Nation chief Claude Friday, La Ronge health activist Chris Merasty and Peepeekisis Cree Nation councillor Colin Stonechild were all told they are ineligible to run.
Fox and Merasty say they both complied with existing rules and have never been given any formal reason from Chief Electoral Officer Myrna O’Soup-Bushie as to why they are ineligible.
“I was not given an explanation – verbally by phone, by text or email – as to why I was not eligible, why I was not running,” Fox says. “I have not received any correspondence from the electoral officer to this date as to why I was not eligible.”
Merasty says he was also shocked when he learned his name was not on the ballot.
He says late in the day on Sept. 28, the deadline for candidate applications, he was told he would have to provide more documentation to meet the criminal record check requirements which Merasty says he did.
“So, I jumped into action, I did what they required me to do, I submitted a letter of support from the local RCMP detachment by 10:30 that evening and by 11:46 the official ballot was released and my name was not on there. I was a little taken aback, I felt a bit embarrassed, ashamed, disrespected.”
Fox says in terms of his disqualification, he believes it is nothing more than pure politics at play.
He says he had planned to run a campaign for chief that would directly challenge the status quo by advocating for a return of the federation to a treaty-based advocacy organization.
The problem in recent years is the FSIN has become too close to the federal and provincial governments and too focused on program delivery, Fox says.
For his part, long-serving FSIN Senator Sol Sanderson agrees.
“People are running to get elected so there’s politics at play,” he says. “What’s being done here is not above the politics being played, I can tell you that from my years of experience seeing what’s going on. There’s been a lot of politics being played to get things to where they are at, how they were done and how they were mismanaged.”
Sanderson is part of a group of senators who have called for the FSIN elections to be delayed so a formal appeal process on behalf of the disqualified candidates can be launched.
So far, these calls have gone unheeded and FSIN staff is moving ahead with plans to hold elections this week.
Earlier this month, the organization released a statement calling the allegations by Fox and the senators “baseless.”
When APTN asked for an interview with interim chief Clarence Bellegarde for clarification on the release, FSIN spokesperson Larissa Burnouf responded in an emailed statement that the federation would not be commenting further due to confidentiality reasons.
A request for comment from Chief Electoral Officer O’Soup-Bushie also went unanswered.
Not the first time
In the 2018 election race, the disagreement revolved around who should serve as interim chief.
Outgoing first vice-chief Kimberley Jonathan said the organization’s legislation dictated she should serve as chief during the month-long campaign period.
However, the FSIN executive and administration said otherwise and instead appointed fourth vice-chief Heather Bear to the role.
They argued since Jonathan’s position was up for re-election, she could not serve as interim chief.
Even though she was not running again.
Things turned nasty and Jonathan was locked out of the chief’s office, the police were called and her email account was disabled.
In the end, the organization’s Indian Government Commission decided no one would serve as interim chief during the campaign period.
The role of the FSIN
Ken Coates, who is a Canada Research Chair and teaches in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, takes a more measured approach to the candidate dispute.
He says as the federation continues to evolve as a political organization, it is not surprising disagreements will arise from time to time.
“Indigenous elections often have these kinds of tensions because they don’t have the formal and rigid structures we have with Canadian elections generally,” Coates says. “Canada’s electoral system is one of the best in the world and we’re controversy and conflict-free, we’re corruption-free, we actually do really well. In the case of First Nations, they’re building their systems in very different kinds of institutions.
“So, FSIN is not a directly elected body from the people themselves. It’s like the Assembly of First Nations. It’s a representative body that actually gets its power from the chiefs and the councillors. So, there’s a push very much to giving the chiefs and councillors very important roles in the electoral process. So, the question of who can be a candidate is always very much in flux.”
Coates adds that as the FSIN has moved to broaden its election act, including the addition of criminal record checks for prospective candidates, there is no doubt these types of disputes will happen.
The U of S professor says one thing that is not in question, however, is the continued relevancy of the organization.
He says you only have to look at the COVID-19 pandemic to see the vital role the federation has played.
Specifically, in terms of serving as a bridge between federal and provincial governments and much-needed relief funding and programming for individual First Nations, Coates says.
The FSIN represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
The organization’s fall assembly takes place Wednesday and Thursday in Saskatoon.