The Liard First Nation has sent a clear message: being convicted of a monstrous act of violence against women is no impediment to holding its highest office.
Defenders of the once disgraced, miraculously rehabilitated Daniel Morris will put things differently, of course. And it’s entirely possible we’re missing something important.
After all, a whole decade has passed since Morris was convicted of crimes that, in many circles, would disqualify you from ever holding office again. And he’s recently expressed contrition in a campaign letter, in which he asserts that he’s sorry for his actions, has completed anger management classes and has managed to reunite his family.
Maybe Morris is a new man. But if that’s the case, why did he refuse to speak with any reporter throughout the election campaign? It’s true that many people distrust the media for many reasons, and declining to comment does not necessarily signal guilt.
But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Morris dodged reporters because he didn’t want to have to publicly address his sordid past, or to explain how the angry, violent man he once was has been transformed into the Obama-like figure that his defenders make him out to be.
“It’s about time for a change. It’s time for people to get back together and act civilized,” one woman told CBC News’ reporter, Philippe Morin, on election night in Watson Lake.
“Criminal record is a criminal record,” said another supporter. “It was just a misunderstanding, it was all it was. And what he’s doing right now, he’s gonna make a big change here.”
Given the seriousness of the crimes for which Morris has been convicted, and the cloud of unproven allegations that continue to hang over his head, these comments are so out of tune they could easily be mistaken for some sick satire.
Let’s review an undisputed summary of what Morris did, according to the B.C. Court of Appeal.
One evening in June 2003, Morris returned home to discover his then-estranged wife wasn’t there. He set off in his truck with a .30-30 rifle and four live cartridges.
He found her in her vehicle in Lower Post, asleep with another man. Morris threatened to kill the man, who fled. Then Morris took his wife to a gravel pit, where he proceeded to punch and kick her for two hours.
The wife pleaded for him to stop throughout the pummelling. At one point she offered sex in exchange for him to stop. He agreed, but the beating resumed afterwards.
The wife spent the following three days in the hospital, and many months later continued to suffer from blurred vision.
This is presumably not what the Morris supporter was thinking of who said, “It’s time for people to get back together and act civilized.”
For crimes related to this attack, Morris initially received a suspended sentence of two years on parole. Following a public outcry over this sentence’s leniency, the B.C. Court of Appeal later gave Morris a one-year prison sentence. The appeals judge noted that Morris was not drunk or high during the attack, he had more than an hour to consider his actions as he pursued his wife, and he is not known to have suffered any childhood trauma.
Morris is also accused by the man who succeeded him as chief, Liard McMillan, of taking nearly $250,000 in inappropriate loans from the First Nation government during his time in office. A report by FJD & Company, commissioned by the First Nation, alleges as much. While Morris has apologized for his acts of violence, he maintains this accusations of financial shenanigans are false.
However, Morris’s assertion in his letter that Aboriginal Affairs cleared him of any wrongdoing is false. Instead, the federal government refused to pursue a forensic audit after it concluded it would be impossible to demonstrate whether any improperly loaned money was given by Ottawa, since the funds were mixed together in general revenue. McMillan has suggested, plausibly, that the federal government simply didn’t want to suffer a major embarrassment by pursuing the matter.
Of course, Morris is far from being the first convict to win office in the Yukon. Our past premier, Dennis Fentie, peddled heroin as a young man. And Dawson City’s past MP and mayor, Peter Jenkins, was imprisoned after his hotel was caught stealing electricity in the 1970s.
But violent crimes are another matter. It’s hard to imagine an MP or MLA being elected with such a rap. Sadly, the same cannot be said about a candidate for chief.
After all, in 2012 Eddie Skookum survived a leadership vote when he sat as chief of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, following his conviction on charges related to an act of domestic violence nearly as despicable as what Morris did. During a weekend in Haines, Alaska, in July 2010, he beat his common-law wife so badly that investigating officers said the room looked like a murder scene.
Following Skookum’s conviction in Alaska for reckless endangerment, women’s groups in the Yukon were awfully slow to condemn his actions, presumably for fear of alienating his supporters. We can only imagine similar concerns are why the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, which was once a fierce critic of Morris, says it will try to work with Morris.
Many questions remain. Does Morris expect to carry out his entire term of chief without speaking to reporters? How exactly does that work, when a big part of his job is to serve as the voice of the community?
More importantly, what does the re-election of someone like Morris, however contrite he may be, say about how women are valued in some rural, First Nation communities in the Yukon? Surely some First Nations would decline to support someone with Morris’s background, but if it can happen in Watson Lake and Carmacks, then where else?
Would the public reaction have been different if Morris was a white man, running for mayor? In such a situation, it would be hard to imagine seeing the same reluctance from the territory’s women’s groups to comment. Are such low expectations a little, well, racist? And isn’t that part of the problem?