M’Chigeeng election is overturned by appeals committee

New elections to be set for chief and council

M’CHIGEENG—The M’Chigeeng First Nation chief and council are facing a return to the hustings following an October 2 meeting of the band’s appeals committee where it was decided to overturn the results of the September 9 band elections following an appeal letter filed on September 21. From now until sometime in December when a new election will be held, M’Chigeeng First Nation is without a chief and council at the helm.

“I would like to encourage everyone to be patient and supportive during this process,” wrote Ogimaa Linda Debassige in an announcement following the appeals committee decision that effectively removed her from her position. “There is no need for mudslinging or any type of lateral violence at this time. Now is the time to stay strong and supportive of this process that M’Chigeeng is now going through.”

Ogimaa Debassige stressed that in matters relating to the election, Isadore Bebamash, chair of the appeals committee, is the official spokesperson.

She went on to comment, however, that she had met with the senior managers and received commitments that all operations would continue uninterrupted. “I believe and have the utmost confidence that the managers have the capacity, knowledge and experience to ensure that the operations will continue through this time,” she wrote. “It is important that our laws be respected and adhered to. As a strong First Nation we can get through this together.” Ogimaa Debassige concluded by acknowledging the work of the appeals committee and the difficult decisions that sometimes have to be made. “We will get through this.”

Ogimaa Debassige had been acting as band manager while the selection process was underway, but now for the interim Les Corbiere will be acting as band rep. She noted that band managers have 20-plus years of experience and that they have the authorizations they need to keep things upright on the ship of state in the interim.

The issue facing the appeals committee was complex, with many historical decisions playing a role, but essentially the controversy stems from a decision to grandfather in a previous membership list when the original custom membership code was created, the so-called “status quo” list, rather than to limit electors and eligible nominees to the list being compiled from those who had reapplied to be recognized as members of the band under the custom code.

A notice from the appeals committee posted on the M’Chigeeng First Nation website announced that the committee had accepted “as consensus, the validity of the appeal letter that the election was in contravention of the elections code.” Further, that the status quo list used for the 2017 M’Chigeeng First Nation elections “does not comply with the M’Chigeeng First Nation Custom Election Code 2005.”

The appeals committee offered as its rationale for the decision that, according to the custom election code, Membership Register means the official list of names and addresses of members maintained by the M’Chigeeng First Nation; a member is eligible to vote if the member is listed on the membership register; only an eligible member may be nominated as a candidate; if satisfied that an election is not conducted in a manner consistent with this code or the regulations, an election appeal committee may declare a contravention; if satisfied that the contravention materially affected the outcome of the election, the election appeal committee may, in addition to a declaration, make such further orders as it considers appropriate; order a new election, including an election for one or more positions, and give directions to the electoral officer for the conduct of that election; and in this section, “administrator” means the entity acting under the administration agreement between Indian and Northern Affairs and Enkamigak Community Inc.”

The committee also referenced an April 29 band meeting resolution that read “whereas M’Chigeeng First Nation chief and council recognizes their duty in failing to maintain a M’Chigeeng First Nation membership register in accordance with the membership code” and an April 13 memo to Chief Linda Debassige from Scott Jacobs, verifier under the Lands Management Act, Lands Advisor Board and an August 4, 2015 report to chief and council from the law firm of Weaver-Simmons that read “many of the people in this category have been accorded the same privileges and benefits as other members, including participation in elections, in referendums to amend the code and other social housing and education related programs and services. It raised expectations of continued eligibility for programs and services and yet, the law is clear—that membership codes must be followed.”

The appeals committee concludes the announcement by ordering a re-election using the M’Chigeeng First Nation membership code list. The announcement was signed by chair Isadore Bebamash and members Renee Corbiere, Rochelle Debassige, Terry Debassige and Molly Migwans.

The referenced letter from the Scott Jacobs, the appointed lands verifier for M’Chigeeng First Nation, noted that according to the custom election code, all members must be compliant with the membership code and those who wish to vote in the election had to follow the proper process outlined in the code to become members. Names can be added to the list up to the day of the election but individuals must provide proof of membership (usually in the form of a letter from the M’Chigeeng First Nation membership office).

“In conclusion, the Membership Code is the current law of M’Chigeeng First Nation,” writes Mr. Jacobs. “The Land Code is developed by members as the fundamental law for the governance of reserve lands and resources Members will vote to ratify the Land Code based on the Community Ratification Process. Use of the “Status Quo” list may allow individuals who are not eligible to be members to participate in a process that is restricted to members.”

Based on the appeal letter, whose author has not yet been disclosed, and its deliberations, the appeals committee made the decision to overturn the election results and order a new election, probably some time in December.

Although the day-to-day operations of the band will continue reasonably uninterrupted, there were many online commentators who expressed concern and dismay, with some noting that their program funding applications require band resolutions of support, and that those applications loom well before the new elections can take place.’