Almost half of White River First Nation members have lost their right to vote.
A recent referendum decided those lacking Canadian citizenship or an Indian status-card cannot vote on First Nation affairs, effectively ending Alaskan input.
And that concludes a three-year-long community debate.
Ottawa and some lawyers see this as a victory for self government in the absence of a land claim.
Chief David Johnny sees the result as a loss for traditional government, laws and boundaries.
Once again, the federal government and its agents are imposing rules on the autonomous aboriginal group, he said.
“Our ancestors bled for this land that we have saved and now someone else’s law is being imposed,” he said.
“Our old laws should apply and Canada should stay out of it. If we want to call ourselves native people and we want to keep our traditions – which we talk about every damn day, or at every meeting – and we can’t even provide our own laws to our own people? It doesn’t seem right.”
The referendum was a waste of time and money, added Johnny.
“Here we are, three years later, with a big court cost and we’re going to go change the constitution and the election procedure, which we were already told to do,” he said. “We spent I don’t know how many thousands and thousands and thousands after we just finished paying our debts off.”
A general assembly was held after the First Nation’s chief and council election of 2008.
There, the membership told the aboriginal leaders to address the issue of mail-in ballots and advanced polls for status citizens outside of Beaver Creek.
Three weeks later, Charlie Eikland Jr., who lost the bid for chief, challenged the electoral process in federal court.
“What was happening is that you had this American influence on our elections,” said Eikland. “It’s about protecting the Canadian rights, is what it’s about. And giving us the right to select our own leadership, with no outside influence.”
The problems stem from the First Nation’s failed land claim negotiation.
Under that deal, anyone with a bloodline would benefit from the settlement. But it was never ratified.
So now there’s a long list of beneficiaries stretching across the Canada/US border, but, without the formal claim, Ottawa only provides money to the White River First Nation for those carrying Canadian status cards.
This caused problems.
Nearby Alaskans were voting on First Nation affairs, but were not responsible for any of the federal money, said Eikland Jr. Meanwhile citizens in Whitehorse, or other far-flung Canadian cities, were counted as part of the federal transfer, but could only vote on matters if they drove, or flew themselves to Beaver Creek.
The First Nation tried to settle the dispute out of court, but Eikland and his team pushed for the referendum instead.
The court agreed, and the White River First Nation’s lawyer Jason Herbert made sure the referendum was held properly.
Former territorial court judge Barry Stuart took the reins as the referendum officer and an advisory task force of six community members, including Eikland and Johnny, was established.
“It originally came from defending a challenge to the election process, so it was an adversarial process,” said Herbert.
“But what it turned into was a collaborative process where everyone who was originally involved in the litigation, agreed to work together to implement a democratic referendum so the community would decide, instead of having an outside court system impose a decision.”
In the end, the referendum team located 113 of 115 eligible voters of the First Nation. Some were as far away as Nova Scotia.
And 87 per cent of them voted.
Of that, 96 per cent endorsed mail-in ballots and advanced polls, and 88 per cent decided to take away voting rights from non-status Americans.
This changes the First Nation constitution, but it could also change the way Ottawa views White River.
It demonstrates what a First Nation is capable of without a land claim, said Herbert.
“There’s a long way to go, in terms of developing the same kind of recognition of self-governance that other First Nations have,” he said. “But with that much said, I will tell you that (Aboriginal Affairs) has been very interested in this development within White River and has been extremely supportive of the work that we’ve been doing here with the First Nation to develop their capacity.
“It’s different from the kind of recognition that the signed First Nations have gotten with their agreements, so I wouldn’t say that it’s an alternative or a replacement to that … but it’s a tremendous step forward.”
For Johnny, it says the exact opposite.
While he supports his citizens’ decision, Johnny noted it boils down to the federal government doling out cards and imposing its laws, borders and rules on people who have been governing themselves for millennia.
A long-delayed election for chief and council is set to be held before the year’s end.
Neither Eikland or Johnny have decided whether they will run.
Eikland is leaning towards running. Johnny is considering stepping aside.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at firstname.lastname@example.org