Fort Liard First Nation postpones election due to COVID-19

Acho Dene Koe First Nation of Fort Liard, N.W.T., says it has postponed its election due to the risks posed by COVID-19. 

The First Nation wrote in a press release Wednesday that there are “serious and well-founded concerns” that holding the election on June 8 as originally planned could risk introducing the illness to candidates, members and residents of Fort Liard.

The chief and council said it was a “difficult decision,” but they had to take into consideration the current state of emergency in the Northwest Territories. 

Tony Devlin, the nation’s elections officer, told CBC it wasn’t feasible for the nation to hold an election at this time.

“In the big picture, nobody’s vote is being taken away. It’s being postponed — like so many other things are in our world right now,” said Devlin.

An election must be held every three years in June, according to the First Nation’s election code. In January, the First Nation’s leadership announced that the election was to be held on June 8, 2020. 

Devlin said the decision needed to be made before Friday, the original starting date for the nation’s nomination period. 

The new election dates are: 

  • Nomination period opens on Sept. 25.
  • Nomination period closes on Oct. 9.
  • Election is on Nov. 9.

The First Nation’s elections code provides three methods for members to vote: in person, by mail-in ballot or by proxy. 

Devlin said there were conversations about using other voting methods, including online voting. 

Gene Hope is the chief of the Acho Dene Koe First Nation in Fort Liard, N.W.T. The chief and council’s decision to postpone the election comes a few days after Indigenous Services Canada recommended that all Indigenous elections be postponed. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

There is nothing in the First Nation’s election code that deals with a postponement or rescheduling of an election. 

The First Nation has a custom elections code, meaning the elections practices are set for and by its membership, Devlin said. A review of the elections code was set to begin after the election and was going to include a section on what to do if an election has to be postponed. 

That debate is also postponed, Devlin said. 

This is not the first time Acho Dene Koe First Nation has postponed an election. Last year, a petition started circulating among the nation’s members, calling for an “immediate” election of chief and council.

Postponement follows public health order 

The election officer, chief and council understand that the decision may raise concerns with membership, the Wednesday press release said, adding there is “overwhelming evidence” that the election needs to be postponed. 

The release states that Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and lists factors like inadequate health-care infrastructure, overcrowded housing and higher rates of underlying health conditions.

“All these factors place First Nations at greater risk of both contraction and spread of the coronavirus.” 

It wouldn’t be a fair election if people can’t campaign.– Tony Devlin, Acho Dene Koe First Nation’s election officer

Devlin said the nation was struggling to find a venue for the election that would respect the territory’s public health order and allow the right number of people to count ballots. 

Campaigning considerations were also taken into account, Devlin said. 

“It wouldn’t be a fair election if people can’t campaign, if people aren’t able to meet face to face with the candidates,” Devlin said.  

Feds recommend all elections be postponed

The chief and council’s decision comes a few days after Indigenous Services Canada recommended that all Indigenous elections be postponed until a later date. 

Last week, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller introduced a new set of regulations that allows First Nations leaders to extend their roles and duties for up to six months without an election. 

Miller said in a statement that the department was in touch with all Indigenous groups that were close to an election but that “the final decision to hold or postpone their election ultimately lies with community leadership.”

The Acho Dene Koe First Nation chief and council said they were provided a copy of the new regulations on April 9, which helped them make their decision. 

Devlin said the regulations make it so the federal government only needs a band council resolution to postpone an election date. 

Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to CBC’s request for comment. 

Devlin said he hopes other Indigenous groups in the North will follow the lead of Acho Dene Koe First Nation and delay their elections. 

Any member of the First Nation can appeal the decision to postpone the June 8 election by submitting a written statement to the nation’s elections officer.

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