Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence re-elected in vote criticized as exclusive

Matthew Coutts
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence re-elected in vote criticized as exclusive

Chief Theresa Spence rose to national prominence by leading a hunger strike protest demanding the government listen to the voices of all aboriginal Canadians, but she appears to have been returned to her position as Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in an election in which barely more than half the electorate was able to participate.

CBC News reports that Spence was re-elected on Tuesday in a vote that would be confirmed later today. But the election was held despite concerns from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.

CAP had appealed for the vote to be delayed over concerns that the 43 per cent of the population that living outside the northern Ontario reserve had not been given adequate opportunity to vote.

While the reserve contended votes must be cast in person, 1,489 members — nearly half of the registered population of 3,472 — live off-reserve.

[ Related: Theresa Spence re-elected chief in Attawapiskat ]

"It’s not fair or reasonable that in the 21st century options like mail-in-ballots are not in place," National Chief Betty Ann Lavallee said in a statement, opposing the way the election was handled.

"I have always believed that the right to vote is a fundamental human right that cannot be denied to members of a community, who for some reason or another are living away from their reserve.  This is unfair – it is wrong and it is against the law.”

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that First Nation communities must extend voting rights to members living outside of the reserve. Lavallee contended that, considering the remote location of the Attawapiskat community and the large number of members living elsewhere, it simply was unfair not to offer an alternative to in-person voting.

Spence garnered national headlines during her six-week hunger strike last winter that added pressure to the Idle No More movement calling for government to take aboriginal issues more seriously.

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While the merits of the hunger strike were debated, it helped force a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders.

Spence, however, pulled out of that meeting and a cadre of Attawapiskat councillors eventually convinced her to end her hunger strike.

One of the hunger strike's primary intentions was to improve housing on the reserve. But Bruce Shisheesh, an election rival of Spence's, argued that her high-profile stunt accomplished nothing for the community.

"Sorry to say. Where's the housing? Where's the results?" he asked CBC News.

Spence was, of course, not the only candidate to participate in an election that discounted 43 per cent of the electorate, but as the incumbent she had a requirement to fight for inclusivity.

That she made her name by fighting the federal government for such inclusivity shouldn’t be discounted, either.

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