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National Post, Thursday, April 03, 2008

Liberals should know better

by Chief Marcel Head

I am a third-term Chief of the Shoal Lake First Nation, a long time Liberal party member and the recently elected president of the federal Liberal riding association in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, Saskatchewan. Our riding is one of the largest in Canada. It covers over half of Saskatchewan. Its population is over half aboriginal.

As a chief, democracy and accountability are important to me. If, for example, my band council posted a notice for an important employee position, began accepting applications, going through resumes and conducting interviews, only to discover one morning that the notice had been removed, interviews cancelled and that I, as chief, had overridden the entire process and appointed my favourite candidate to the job, there would be a strong and understandable reaction.

This is what took place in the run-up to the March 17 byelection in northern Saskatchewan when local Liberals were denied the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choosing. When the byelection was over, the Conservatives had won a seat I believe Liberals would have retained if the Liberal party had followed the normal democratic candidate selection process and allowed our riding association to elect our candidate.

As First Nations we were granted the right to vote less than 50 years ago. We have a long history of broken promises. We want an end to that history. We expect a lot from the promise of democracy and have worked hard in recent decades to claim our rightful and respected place in Canada's political process.

In the early 1980s, aboriginal mobilization led to the enshrining of key rights in the Constitution Act of 1982. A decade later, First Nations played a leading role at Elijah Harper's side to say no to the Meech Lake Accord. Through the courts we have won significant victories, including the 2006 Mikisew decision reaffirming the duty to not only consult, but accommodate First Nations before changes occur affecting our traditional territories.

Within the Liberal party structure, aboriginals, women and youth have made significant progress.

Yet, in the aftermath of the March 17 byelection we are hearing that the Liberals lost the riding to the Conservatives because aboriginal voters were "apathetic," didn't understand the necessity of showing ID, did not grasp the very real achievement of the Kelowna Accord or because the Liberal candidate "didn't have enough time."

These are simply unacceptable excuses for losing. We are pleased with the Kelowna Accord. We also had a lot of time to prepare for this byelection — many months, in fact — and Elections Canada had done a good job making people aware of the ID requirement.

We objected to the overriding of the democratic process. A well-functioning, vibrant nomination race that had many people — aboriginal and white — excited about the new possibilities for our riding was abruptly brought to an end without any consultation. Residents of the riding — whites, Metis and First Nations — gathered at large meetings in January to protest.

It seemed the old Indian Act mentality of being told who we should vote for was alive and well once again — this time in the party that we had worked so hard to build and move beyond that kind of thinking.

Metis leaders, mayors, white farmers, First Nations chiefs and concerned party members of all descriptions took the time to talk to our party leadership, urging that the democratic process be respected. We sent one of our candidates, David Orchard, to Ottawa with instructions to invite the leader or his representative to come and sit with us and hear our concerns. There seemed to be no one at the other end willing to listen. Everything came to a very predictable head on March 17.

This is one of the reasons I accepted the responsibility of deeper involvement in our party, standing for election as riding president.

Our executive wishes to proceed now to prepare for an open and fair nomination process, so that such a problem does not reoccur.

We want our riding to be able to play a role in the very necessary rebuilding and strengthening of the Liberal Party of Canada in Saskatchewan. We hope that those who have exercised power for many years in our party will accept our participation and hear our ideas for renewal and greater grassroots involvement. Working together, we believe that we can defeat the Harper government in the coming election and put our country on a better track for all of its citizens.

Chief Marcel Head is president of the federal Liberal riding association in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River in Saskatchewan.

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