by Alicia McCutcheon
AUNDECK OMNI KANING—A referendum held over the weekend in Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) will bring some major changes to band politics, beginning with the December 2011 election of chief and council for another three-year term.
Chief Craig Abotossaway explained that the referendum ballot—consisting of four questions—came about after a series of community meetings attended by members of the First Nation. These meetings brought four issues to light that were of obvious importance to the community: Should anyone be employed by Aundeck Omni Kaning be eligible to hold elected office?; Should we change the election date to summer months (August or September)?; Should there be a cap of seven band councillors, even if the population increases over 700 band members?; Finally, should nominees provide a criminal reference check at their own expense prior to the election?
Unofficial results given to The Expositor show that over 90 band members voted in the Saturday referendum with each ballot question receiving a majority vote in favour of change.
Fifty-four band members voted no to the first question, meaning that “everyone who works for the AOK First Nation will not be eligible to hold both their employment position or their elected office. The employees will have to resign from his/her job to hold an elected seat…” an AOK referendum clarification sheet given to community members reads. Thirty-five voted in favour of keeping the status quo.
This particular question rocked the community last year when a coalition group called the Take Back the Community Coalition and spearheaded by Anna Marie General, circulated a petition (that received over 80 signatures) calling for the resignation of band members who held a sat on council and were also employed by the band.
The overlapping of roles that occurs in the community creates conflict among band members because there is a lack of accountability and a sense of inequality between ordinary citizens and those who are employed in the dual roles of councillor and staff member, Ms. General told The Expositor in an interview last year for a news story on the issue.
When reached on Sunday evening for comment, Ms. General said, “We’re happy that the community finally realized this. The voting shows that we have resolved the issue.”
Ms. General noted that the coalition was looking forward to the election in December.
When asked about the broad spectrum of “employment” as stated on the ballot (large numbers of the community are employed by the First Nation on varying levels), she said the group was not concerned. “Surely we can pull a good council from the remaining members of the community.”
“The coalition group is happy that the community can vote and be a majority and have no staff interference,” she continued. “We expect to have a full voice around the council table.”
“I know there will be other First Nations watching this, and if this little community has the strength to do it, anyone can,” Ms. General continued. (M’Chigeeng First Nation has had a similar stipulation in place for several years concerning band council members’ abilities to hold paid community jobs.)
“We’re just trying to make an even playing field,” she added. “Kindness and fairness, that’s all this group has ever shown. We all played together and we all stand together. We went in with an objective and achieved that, now we can move on.”
“We took a bullet for the community,” she said, “and there were times I a felt like a sitting duck.”
Ms. General explained there is a now sense of calmness in the community and that “people are feeling a little more cheerful.”
Band members also voted in favour of changing the election date to August instead of December.
Chief Abotossaway explained that there were two reasons that this was brought up by community members. First and foremost, he said, elections often cause rifts in families in the community and to have an election in December often meant family feuds during the Christmas season. The chief also noted that the community felt it would be best to hold a summer vote as this eliminated the need for winter driving as those members who live off-reserve could safely travel home to vote without having to worry about road conditions.
AOK residents also voted strongly in favour of keeping the cap at seven councillors, with 65 voting in favour and 26 against.
Sixty-nine vote were cast in favour of changing the rules in regards to criminal reference checks. Before, Chief Abotossaway explained, those who were elected to a seat on council had to submit a criminal reference check but the referendum has now voted in favour of having all those running for office submit to the check, win or lose.
The chief explained that the community felt the need to know a person’s background before casting a vote.
“This has been a long time coming and we’ve been in need of electoral reform for some time,” Chief Abotossaway said. “The community members have put a lot of work into this. The people have spoken and this is what they’re looking for.”