Whitefish River embraces Internet voting for MRP law referendum

BIRCH ISLAND—The Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) has prided itself in being on the leading edge of technology, bringing fibre optic capability to its community centre and building state-of-the-art educational and water treatment facilities in recent years. Now the band is embracing the concept of Internet voting in an effort to boost referendum participation rates above the 25 percent threshold for ratification of its new Matrimonial Real Property Law (MRP).

MRP refers to tangible and immovable property. If it is mobile, the MRP does not apply.

The need for a homegrown MRP became evident due to a “legislative gap” that prevented First Nations, the federal government or the provincial courts from dealing with property issues when a marriage or common law relationship breaks down. The urgency behind WRFN putting in place their own MRP law is due to a federal law that came into force in December that allowed only one year for the band to pass its own laws, before federal “provisional rules” regulations would be imposed.

“The legislative gap was of the federal government’s making, not ours,” noted Franklin Paibomsai (as Chief Shining Turtle, Mr. Paibomsai is the 12-year incumbent who is currently seeking re-election). “We told them we were unhappy with the lack of notice or turn around time to bring in our own law, but the government was not responsive to our concerns.”

Adding to the difficulty facing First Nations contemplating their own MRP law was the lack of any federal funding being made available to assist in developing the regulations, which are complex in that they must take into account the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Luckily we were able to secure third party funding through the First Nations Market Based Housing to develop our law,” said Mr. Paibomsai.

The WRFN MRP is intended to “shield WRFN from the federal law” which came into force on December 16, 2014.

Mr. Paibomsai said that the heart of the MRP is based, first and foremost, on the needs of any children of a union and is designed to protect those children, regardless as to whether the parent of the children are Native or non-Native. “It is all about the children,” he said.

What followed was a whirlwind series of consultations and meetings over the past seven months in order to establish a made in WRFN set of MRP laws.

“Our MRP law is based on a number of focussed community consultation sessions and efforts over the past seven months,” said Mr. Paibomsai. On May 7, 2014, the band council began the process of drafting the MRP law and by June 25, they held an elders and community members meeting to review those efforts and to discuss the new law. Between August 12 and 22 a community survey was conducted and on August 26 a second community meeting was held, followed by a third on September 30 and a fourth on October 29.

A series of final meetings will take place with an elders luncheon and learning session to be held noon on February 12 at the Seven Fires Youth and Elders Centre; a youth information session at 4 pm. Off-reserve meetings took place at the N’Swokamok Friendship Centre in Sudbury on January 27 and in Toronto at the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina on January 28.

The process will culminate with an electronic poll that will take place between 8 am Monday, March 2 and 8 pm Thursday, March 5 and through a March 6 paper ballot from 9 am to 4 pm at the WRFN administration office at 17A Rainbow Ridge Road. Voters may only vote once and duplicate votes will be discarded.

The Scytl corporation will conduct the electronic vote. The company described itself on its website as “the worldwide leader in secure electronic voting, election management and election modernization solutions.”

The company says that their electronic voting solutions “incorporate unique cryptographic protocols that ensure maximum security, transparency and auditability in all types of elections. Scytl’s groundbreaking electoral security technology is protected by international patents and enables organizations to electronically carry out all types of electoral processes in a completely secure and auditable manner, positioning the company as the global leader in the industry.”

“We did a lot of research to select the company,” noted Mr. Paibomsai. “We are confident that they will provide the best solution for our needs.”

Those needs include reaching out to the WRFN diaspora, as in order to reach the ratification threshold, voter participation by band members must reach 25 percent of those eligible. Meeting that threshold has proven challenging for a number of Manitoulin First Nations seeking to bring in their own laws regarding their internal governance.

“We have a significant part of our membership who live off-reserve,” noted Mr. Paibomsai. Like most rural communities, many of the band’s membership have had to move to larger urban centres in order to pursue economic opportunities, but they still have a strong interest in what is happening in their home communities, particularly as many dream of returning to the community someday. “We are making every effort to reach out to those members.” Those efforts included mailing a hard copy of the draft MRP to all band members for whom the band has an address.

The MRP itself begins with a preamble that sets in place the prerogative for self-sufficient government, the best interests of the child as paramount and encourages domestic contracts and mediation as first resorts. The preamble then sets out the legal name of the document ‘The Whitefish River First Nation Matrimonial Real Property Law’ before setting out legal definitions of the wording used throughout the document.

The law only comes into play if at least one spouse is a citizen and operates “in conjunction with laws that deal with other matrimonial matters.”

Among the highlights are that spouses can agree that an inherited or gifted family home is to be divided, that a non-citizen of the band cannot receive more than a ‘life-estate’ and how domestic contracts can be set aside; guarantees that on the death of a spouse the surviving spouse and children can remain in the family home for at least 180 days; restricts the ability of either spouse to sell or transfer the matrimonial property; that both spouses have an equal right to occupy the home during the relationship; sets out the conditions of an exclusive occupation order for the primary caregiver and the relationship with emergency protection orders noting that it applies to all homes on the WRFN, not just family homes and provides for protection of victims by removing violent persons from the home.

The complete MRP draft can be picked up at the Whitefish River First Nation administration office.