The White River First Nation has a new chief, Charles Eikland Jr. He was elected in the recent election, which included mail-in ballots and excluded some of the band’s American citizens for the first time.
Eikland Jr. won a 55 per cent majority after the second count of the First Nation’s preferential vote. He defeated Roland Peters, who received 31 per cent of the final vote, and Duncan Stephen, who garnered 13.75 per cent. Angela Demit was eliminated in the second count.
Former chief David Johnny did not seek re-election. Instead, he said Tuesday, he’s returning to the Department of Highways and Public Works.
The election was Dec. 17 but the ballots weren’t counted until after Christmas to make sure all of the mail-in ballots would be included, said electoral officer Tim Cant.
Apart from that delay and the difficulty of establishing a current mailing list for eligible voters, the new system seems to be a success, Cant added.
“There was a huge number of mail-in ballots,” he said. “They came in from all over. People were quite happy about it. We had a higher turnout in this election than in the past election. That shows clearly that (the new system) does work and people want it to work.”
It was a community referendum last summer that ended more than three years of debate over mail-in ballots and the participation of Alaskan beneficiaries.
“The purpose of the referendum was to allow Canadian status members to decide on who should vote,” said Eikland Jr. in an interview Tuesday.
After losing the 2008 election, Eikland Jr. challenged the voting system in federal court, eventually instigating the referendum.
As well as allowing mail-in ballots, the referendum decided that any US White River beneficiaries, without a Canadian Indian status card, would no longer have a vote.
“The concern is with Americans who are benefitting from two claims,” Eikland Jr. said. “I’d like to make things fair for all our citizens. I don’t think it’s fair for them to benefit in two countries. In Alaska, we are not recognized unless we were born in the U.S. It should be reciprocal to make it fair.”
The U.S.- Canada border runs right through the southwestern Yukon First Nation’s traditional territory, leaving it with citizens in both Alaska and the Yukon.
When the First Nation began negotiating a land claim in the 1990s, many Alaskan citizens added their names to the beneficiaries list.
“The beneficiaries list almost doubles the status numbers,” said Eikland Jr., adding the increase is due mostly to the Alaskans.
But White River has never signed a land claim agreement, meaning financial transfers from Ottawa are calculated by the number of citizens with Canadian federal Indian status cards and not by the number of beneficiaries.
American beneficiaries who are not responsible for any of the money should not have a say on how it is spent, Eikland Jr. argued. Especially when many are also beneficiaries of a claim with the United States government, he added.
That’s not the way outgoing chief David Johnny sees it.
“I’ve been there since day one,” said Johnny. “And (the Americans) hardly ever voted, despite the fact they could.”
Johnny agreed the voting system needed to be amended to allow mail-in ballots so First Nation members living in other parts of Canada could have a say, without having to physically get themselves to Beaver Creek.
“We heard the voting system wasn’t working for years,” he said. “We were already instructed by our boss, the general assembly. We already had a committee started and then Charlie came with the court case and $200,000 later, we were back to where we were. The court case shouldn’t have even happened.”
For Johnny, the new status-only voting rules undermine the traditional laws and governance of the First Nation.
“White River doesn’t recognize that border,” he said. “Those people over there are our people. We don’t believe in that system. He (Eikland Jr.) is trying to draw that line – he’s related to those people.”
The new chief readily admits he has direct relations in Alaska, but he also has cousins who are citizens of the Kluane First Nation and family members in other countries outside of Canada, he said. They don’t expect to be able to vote in their elections.
“It’s unfortunate the border came through,” Eikland Jr. said. “But it happened. We’re not going to change the U.S.- Canada border.”
And just because voting rights must abide by the colonially-imposed, imaginary line doesn’t mean all ties must be severed, he added.
Cultural gatherings, activities and traditions can – and should – still be shared, he said.
Eikland Jr. will take office Jan. 16 along with four new councillors.
The First Nation is divided into two language groups: Northern Tutchone and Upper Tanana. Citizens of each group vote for two councillors and one alternate to represent them.
Michael Nieman and Dwayne Broeren were elected for the Northern Tutchone, with Stanley Jack as the alternate. Patrick Johnny and Gordon John were elected for the Upper Tanana, with Charles Eikland Sr. as the alternate.
There were five candidates for each group.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at