In Fort Wil­liam First Na­tion, band uses elec­tion to press for­ward de­spite echoes of colo­nial past

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - ERIC AN­DREW- GEE

The main roads of Fort Wil­liam First Na­tion are a riot of cam­paign signs a week be­fore vot­ing day. Some are hand-drawn on neon bris­tol board; oth­ers are carved out of ply­wood to look like Mon­treal Cana­di­ens jer­seys.

Elec­tion­eer­ing is at an even higher pitch on Face­book, where vot­ers and can­di­dates trade in­sults along with in­spi­ra­tional quo­ta­tions from Barack Obama.

Lo­cal democ­racy is in full bloom on this re­serve next to Thun­der Bay.

That rep­re­sents progress. Elec­tions at Fort Wil­liam have not al­ways been free and fair, and have of­ten been

swayed by the heavy hand of the fed­eral govern­ment. In 1933, a well-doc­u­mented vote for chief was over­seen by red-coated Moun­ties who watched as the band re-elected Frank Pel­letier, not by se­cret bal­lot, but by a show of hands.

De­spite the strides it has made, this com­mu­nity of 2,400 is still marked by its colo­nial past at ev­ery turn, from the part of the re­serve known as Squaw Bay, to the very chief-and-coun­cil sys­tem for which the band is cur­rently choos­ing lead­ers.

As Fort Wil­liam con­fronts its usual chal­lenges at elec­tion time − hous­ing, ad­dic­tions, em­ploy­ment − it is also grap­pling with a more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem: how a sys­tem of govern­ment that was de­signed to con­trol and as­sim­i­late the com­mu­nity can be used to im­prove its lot and pre­serve its iden­tity in­stead. Re­solv­ing that con­tra­dic­tion has not been easy, but some mem­bers of Fort Wil­liam are de­ter­mined to try.

“We can main­tain tra­di­tional core val­ues … while em­brac­ing and build­ing on main­stream frame­works,” said Ge­or­jann Mor­riseau, a for­mer chief. “We do not have to give up one for the other − there’s al­ways a bal­ance. We’ve got to be able to find that.”

Be­sides their eye-catch­ing flam­boy­ance and sheer num­ber, there’s some­thing else dis­tinc­tive about Fort Wil­liam elec­tion signs: A few names ap­pear on them again and again. The band is po­lit­i­cally dom­i­nated by fam­ily dy­nas­ties, and in this elec­tion alone 10 Pel­letiers are run­ning for of­fice, along with nine Ban­nons and seven Collinses.

Nick­names help set the can­di­dates apart, and un­der­score the in­ti­macy of elec­tions in a place where ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one. The monikers of Ed (Thumper) Collins, Shel­don (Shezzy) Ban­non and Rita May (Toto) Fen­ton vie for eye­balls on a crowded bal­lot con­tain­ing more than 50 coun­cil hope­fuls.

The most im­por­tant names in this elec­tion, though, are those of Peter Collins and Bon­nie Pel­letier. They are run­ning for chief in a com­mu­nity where that po­si­tion wields enor­mous power. The im­por­tance of ex­ter­nal af­fairs such as land-claim ne­go­ti­a­tions helps in­vest the band’s leader with out­size im­por­tance.

Mr. Collins and Ms. Pel­letier are ar­che­typal can­di­dates: the one, a griz­zled vet­eran of re­serve politics with a list of ac­com­plish­ments as weighty as the eth­i­cal bag­gage he is seen to carry; the other, a rel­a­tive out­sider with a mile-long CV and a re­form­ing streak. It is ex­pe­ri­ence against change.

Mr. Collins was first elected chief in 1998, and his time in of­fice has only been briefly in­ter­rupted twice since − a long ca­reer whose toll shows through in a weary man­ner and a some­what ca­sual ap­proach to this, his fi­nal cam­paign.

“If they feel it’s time for change, I’m okay with that,” he said, re­clin­ing in an of­fice chair in the band coun­cil build­ing.

Like many long-time in­cum­bents, he is more vol­u­ble on the sub­ject of the past than the fu­ture, and will hap­pily rat­tle off what he sees as his great­est hits with­out prompt­ing. “We’ve built two are­nas, we’ve built the com­mu­nity cen­tre, we’ve built the Dil­ico child and wel­fare cen­tre,” he said. “We built Res­o­lute mill, we set­tled close to $300-mil­lion in claims, prob­a­bly about $100-mil­lion in in­fra­struc­ture built since I got here, about 150, 200 houses built since I got here. If I do have to leave, I’ll leave be­hind a good legacy.”

It is prob­a­bly no sur­prise that some­one who has led the com­mu­nity for a gen­er­a­tion should have some vic­to­ries that lit­er­ally de­fine the place. Most re­cently, Mr. Collins se­cured a $99-mil­lion set­tle­ment from the fed­eral govern­ment for re­serve land that was ex­pro­pri­ated by the Grand Trunk Pa­cific Rail­way more than a cen­tury ago, a move that forced the com­mu­nity to ex­hume graves, aban­don farms and move to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion at the base of the im­pos­ing Mount McKay.

But by the same to­ken, the clouds hang­ing over Mr. Collins hang over Fort Wil­liam First Na­tion, as well. In the early 2000s, his wife, Su­san, took part in a wide-rang­ing wel­fare fraud scheme on the re­serve that swiped nearly $1.3-mil­lion from the pro­vin­cial govern­ment by cre­at­ing false On­tario Works client ap­pli­ca­tions. She was sen­tenced to 10 months in prison in 2011. Mr. Collins was never im­pli­cated.

Bon­nie Pel­letier is some­thing like Mr. Collins’s op­po­site. She left the north shore of Lake Su­pe­rior for a prelaw pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan in 1993 and, from then on, built her life away from home. For fif­teen years, she prac­tised law on the Tyen­d­i­naga Mo­hawk Ter­ri­tory in East­ern On­tario and is cur­rently study­ing In­dige­nous gov­er­nance at Queen’s Univer­sity.

Ms. Pel­letier brings an al­most aca­demic per­spec­tive to band is­sues, a far cry from the earthy ap­proach of Mr. Collins. She defends her time away from the com­mu­nity by point­ing to the im­pres­sive ca­reer she’s built and the fresh per­spec­tive it’s given her. (She also says that she has lots of fam­ily on re­serve.)

“It’s just come full cir­cle, where I’m in a re­ally good po­si­tion to give back,” she said, sip­ping de­caf cof­fee in a Thun­der Bay ho­tel restau­rant.

The Pel­letier plat­form can be summed up in one word: ac­count­abil­ity. She has an out­sider’s sense of in­dig­na­tion at the in­for­mal way so much band busi­ness is con­ducted, in ways large and small. She can’t be­lieve that vot­ers are wel­come to mark their bal­lots with an erasable pen­cil − “Why not just give them a crayon?!” she said − or that one of the can­di­dates for coun­cil is the fa­ther of the elec­toral of­fi­cer.

“It should be KPMG or some­thing run­ning the elec­tion − not a band mem­ber,” Ms. Pel­letier said, re­fer­ring to the be­he­moth au­dit­ing and con­sult­ing com­pany.

The al­lot­ment of hous­ing is an­other of her con­cerns. Homes on the re­serve are dis­trib­uted by the band govern­ment in what is some­times seen as an ad hoc man­ner. Cer­tain ap­pli­cants might be of­fered less de­sir­able land or find them­selves un­able to get their drive­ways paved, say, while oth­ers ap­pear to have an in­side track.

“No­body knows what the rules are,” Ms. Pel­letier said. “That process is a free-for-all de­pend­ing on who you are.”

Fort Wil­liam, like many other First Na­tions, is not fully ac­count­able to ei­ther their peo­ple or the fed­eral govern­ment, Ms. Pel­letier be­lieves, leav­ing them un­able to gov­ern ef­fec­tively by ei­ther tra­di­tional or colo­nial mea­sures.

“First Na­tions are sort of tee­ter­ing be­tween self-gov­ern­ing and the In­dian Act,” she said. “They’re not in bal­ance with the tra­di­tional ways and not in bal­ance with the Western stan­dards.”

As chief, Ms. Pel­letier says she would is­sue de­tailed monthly re­ports on the busi­ness of govern­ment and try to bring in a more for­mal­ized mort­gage pro­gram geared to dif­fer­ent in­come lev­els.

“I’m re­ally strong about rules,” she said.

The sec­ond day of ad­vance polling is al­most done. If the Moun­ties are long gone, the im­pe­rial sym­bol­ism is not. Vot­ers file in and out of the Wellington Room at Thun­der Bay’s Vic­to­ria Inn.

Stand­ing in the ho­tel’s beige hall­way af­ter cast­ing her bal­lot, Annabelle Bell ar­tic­u­lates what th­ese grand Bri­tish names sug­gest: In many ways, she and her com­mu­nity are liv­ing in some­one else’s world.

“They started elec­tions the white man’s way,” Ms. Bell said.

“I still think it’s run­ning the white man’s way to­day.”

Ms. Bell is not wrong. The In­dian Act, first en­acted in 1876, re­placed tra­di­tional forms of First Na­tions gov­er­nance in many parts of the coun­try. Some 200 First Na­tions still con­duct their elec­tions un­der the leg­is­la­tion.

This week, Fort Wil­liam will have its first vote un­der the more re­cent First Na­tions Elec­tion Act, which fea­tures rules more in line with mod­ern demo­cratic stan­dards, such as four-year terms of of­fice, re­counts for close votes and ad­vance polling. More than 60 First Na­tions have opted in to the sys­tem since it was en­acted in 2015.

But for all its pro­gres­sive trap­pings, the new law does not undo the colo­nial legacy that Ms. Bell al­luded to, sim­ply be­cause it pre­serves a rigid chief-and-coun­cil sys­tem that is not tra­di­tional for the Ojibwa of Lake Su­pe­rior.

“The band-coun­cil sys­tem we have to­day was im­posed,” said Hay­den King, an Anishi­naabe scholar and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Yel­low­head In­sti­tute think tank in Toronto.

“It’s a for­eign sys­tem. It’s a sys­tem that is re­ally only de­signed to achieve fed­eral govern­ment ob­jec­tives.”

Still, the colo­nial na­ture of band elec­tions doesn’t keep many mem­bers of Fort Wil­liam from throw­ing them­selves into the process. While voter turnout is typ­i­cally less than 50 per cent, the am­bi­tion and earnest­ness of civic de­bate far out­strips that of most com­mu­ni­ties its size. Even though Ms. Bell said she feels the pro­ceed­ings are ar­ranged by the “waubsh

ki­weg” − an Anishi­naabe term for white peo­ple − she was one of a few dozen band mem­bers who cast their vote early.

Bon­nie Pel­letier’s fi­nal meet and greet of the cam­paign was held at the Fort Wil­liam First Na­tion Arena, a big barn of a build­ing pop­u­lar among Thun­der Bay par­ents who bring their kids to play hockey there.

In many ways, the event re­sem­bled a small-town elec­tion rally any­where in the coun­try. Kids ran around a brightly lit basketball court, plas­tic chairs were ar­ranged in a cir­cle and an air of slightly du­ti­ful cit­i­zen­ship hung over the pro­ceed­ings.

But dif­fer­ences also stood out − and seemed to sug­gest the ways in which Anishi­naabe tra­di­tion could tem­per and maybe even re­deem the deep flaws of In­dian Act democ­racy.

Ban­nock was served along­side the cof­fee. El­ders played drums and evoked their an­ces­tors. And in a scene you would not likely see dur­ing many cam­paigns for reeve, a young coun­cil can­di­date named Tim Solomon grate­fully ac­cepted a smudge from a tra­di­tional knowl­edge keeper, whisk­ing fra­grant smoke to­ward his face with a feather.

Mr. Solomon wore a neck­lace strung with bul­lets that he said he had per­son­ally used to hunt big game. His long black hair was parted in the mid­dle.

“I’m run­ning to build a bill of rights,” he said. “We need over­sight − true over­sight.”

It was im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the mis­takes of the past and the depre­da­tions of the In­dian agents, he said. Tra­di­tional ways were im­por­tant to him. But First Na­tions should also try to learn from other govern­ment sys­tems. That was the way for­ward.

“We just need to pull out the best parts of ev­ery mod­ern so­ci­ety and put them to­gether to be most pro­tec­tive of peo­ple’s rights,” he said.

“That way, we can bring to­gether the knowl­edge of our el­ders and the knowl­edge of our youth.”


Elec­tions at Fort Wil­liam have of­ten been swayed by the heavy hand of the fed­eral govern­ment. In 1933, a vote for chief was over­seen by Moun­ties who watched as the band re-elected Frank Pel­letier by a show of hands.


Bon­nie Pel­letier, above, and Peter Collins, below, are both run­ning for chief. Mr. Collins was first elected chief in 1998, and his time in of­fice has only been briefly in­ter­rupted twice since; Ms. Pel­letier left the north shore of Lake Su­pe­rior for the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan in 1993 and prac­tised law for 15 years.

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