The building where people voted in Shoal Lake 39 looked more like a testing centre for the COVID-19 virus than a place where you cast a ballot for chief and council.
Inside where members registered, people were asked to use hand sanitizer entering and leaving and only two voting members were allowed in the station at a time with signs warning them to keep two metres apart.
A ballot was handed to them through a cut out slight in the plastic just big enough for the envelope.
This is what election day looks like during a pandemic.
Tania Cameron is the electoral officer for the community.
She asked Indigenous Service to delay the vote because of COVID-19.
“They’re concerned about the level of traffic in the community,” Cameron told APTN News about how the community felt about having to vote. “I know that they already put up a check point that they’d like to limit the number of people coming in and out.”
Because there was no clear response from Ottawa, the election went ahead.
Pandemic safeguard in place for election day in Iskatewizaagegan 39 IFN. 6’ distancing, 2 voters in the station at one time, disinfect in between voters, etc. Vote count limited to candidates only or their scrutineer. #electoralofficer pic.twitter.com/SGTzs1Jt8w
— Tania Cameron (@TaniaCameron) March 26, 2020
The COVID-19 virus wasn’t even their only concern.
Like other reserves, Shoal Lake 39 is still under Indian Act regulations and if there’s no election – there’s no council.
Maggie Wente is an Anishinaabe lawyer in Toronto.
“So under the Indian Act there’s a two year term limit and under the First Nations Elections Act it’s a four year term limit,” she said. “And there’s no possibility within those acts to extend those limits.”
The term for Shoal Lake 39 expired on Mar. 25 – which is why the election went ahead on Thursday.
If the community chose to postpone it, they would be in bureaucratic limbo.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he doesn’t have the authority to postpone Indian Act or custom elections.
“What happens factually under the Act is that that authority then goes and vests in the band manager which is not necessarily the ideal outcome,” said Miller. “Which isn’t a gap per say but it’s just an inconvenience, a very, very perhaps undesirable governance result which vests band-like powers with the band manager.
“Not the ideal outcome.”
Not the only community
Shoal Lake isn’t the only band that went ahead with elections.
Two First Nations in the west held their elections last weekend despite the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations around social distancing.
The Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan held an election Mar. 20 and posted an announcement on Facebook saying their election would continue.
“As Saskatchewan has one of the lowest numbers of cases of COVID-19 in Canada, we feel it is the responsible thing to do to complete this election before our numbers of those infected may become higher and there is more risk to the community,” said the notice.
But on the Facebook group Red Pheasant Cree Nation, I have a Voice, members expressed concerns about COVID-19 exposure.
“They should [have] cancelled it with this virus going around,” wrote Norella Morin.
The Upper Nicola band in British Columbia held its election on Saturday.
According to a notice on the band’s Facebook page, votes could be cast electronically or in person.
Tyrone Paul said, “I’m genuinely happy that electronic/distance voting is available.”
APTN News reached out to the band office and the chief electoral officer to ask why an election would continue after the declaration of a state of emergency and have not received a reply.
The band was invited to witness the vote count by online and telephone conferencing.
The notice made no mention of any precautions or measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
Upper Nicola Band announced a state of emergency on March 18, two days before the election, which was followed by the closure of the band office and school for two weeks.
Wente says the government needs to be flexible.
“If we’re in a situation where we’re saying that one level of government isn’t going to recognize a First Nations government that’s something that creates extraordinary instability,” she said. “And it creates a extraordinary instability in a time that’s already unstable.”
An internal email from Indigenous Services that circulated Mar. 19 said councils can postpone their election, but that won’t extend the council’s term in office and, “at the end of the mandate, a First Nation will find itself dealing with a governance gap.”
The memo also mentions that fact that members should bring their own pens and pencils to vote.
More elections coming
At least 16 other First Nations in Ontario will be in the same boat in April, says Wente.
But not First Nations under what’s called a custom election code.
Lac La Ronge in Saskatchewan is one such community.
The community extended the term of their council until the end of April.
Chief Tammy Searson-Cook says it’s about the health and safety of her community.
Tania Cameron said she didn’t receive any information from Indigenous services about the election and how to keep people safe.
“We just did our best with the community and my suggestions about how we can protect community members here, lessen chances of exposure,” she said.
At the end of the day, Gerald Lewis was re-elected chief of Shoal Lake 39.
His win was noticed by Marc Miller who tweeted, “Canada recognizes the health risks of holding elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. We therefore recommend that First Nations do not go forward with upcoming elections & will work w. communities that choose to postpone their election to ensure leadership continuity.”
With files from John Murray