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.