Brokenhead Ojibway Nation to hold band election this week with COVID-19 precautions

A First Nation in Manitoba is taking as many precautions as they can think of to move ahead with their band’s election this Saturday.

“It’s a very difficult decision,” said Deborah Smith, chief of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, about 65 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. 

Smith is finishing her first two-year term as the chief of her community and is running for re-election on April 18.

Mail-in ballots were sent out over a month ago to Brokenhead’s 700 on-reserve and 1,200 off-reserve members. On Tuesday, the chief and council voted in favour of proceeding with the in-person vote on Saturday.

“There’s of course a lot of factors that come into play, undeniably the health concerns that COVID-19 poses, but also the fear of people being exposed to infection,” said Smith.

Chief Deborah Smith and council members voted on Tuesday to proceed with the election. (Submitted by Deborah Smith)

In late March Indigenous Services Canada recommended that First Nations suspend all elections during the pandemic, but said it would be willing to provide advice on measures to limit the risks to community members if some communities decided to go ahead with a scheduled election.

Smith said they received a letter from Indigenous Services Canada last week that would allow the band to postpone the election up to six months and to keep their executive power as chief and council in the interim.

Prior to making a decision about the election, Brokenhead leadership said they consulted with community members. 

Precautions on voting day

Taylor Galvin, a Brokenhead member, is studying at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and sent in her mail-in ballot two weeks ago. 

She said she stays up to date with her band’s politics on the local Facebook page and is comfortable with the band moving forward with the election.

“If they cancelled or postponed, it may have caused issues within the community,” said Galvin.

“I heard other communities worried about governance gaps. I think those issues may have arisen if they would have waited.”

Winston Desjarlais has been on council for seven terms. He said the band is taking extra precautions to mitigate COVID-19 risks during voting. (Deborah Smith)

Winston Desjarlais has been on council for seven terms and made the decision before the pandemic to not run for re-election.

“There’s the willingness to want to move ahead so that [the band] can exercise their democratic right and have their election,” he said.

He said the band’s electoral officer Burke Ratte will be taking extra precautionary measures to prevent spread of infection in the community, including following Manitoba’s public health order to restrict gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

The vote will take place at Sergeant Tommy Prince School gymnasium from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Prior to going in, Desjarlais said voters will be given face masks, hand sanitizer and their own pen. Only one person will be allowed to vote at a time.

“[Ratte] is taking every precaution that he can including Plexiglass in front of his deputies,” said Desjarlais.

Usually the community would gather to watch the vote tally being counted, however Desjarlais said Saturday’s tallying of results will be livestreamed on social media.

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