The First Nation of Northern Alberta applauds ruling declaring voting laws discriminatory

The decision of the Federal Court of Justice was published on February 15.  (Andrew Lee/CBC - photo credit)

The decision of the Federal Court of Justice was published on February 15. (Andrew Lee/CBC – photo credit)

A legal victory by two Cree women restored the right to vote for generations of women in an Alberta First Nation.

On February 15, the federal court overturned two voting rules at Whitefish Lake First Nation #128. One prohibited members in common law relationships from running for office; the other held thousands of women ineligible because their mother, grandmother or great-grandmother had married a man without status.

In a 69-page decision, Judge Paul Favel declared the Bill C-31 Voting Policy and Common Law Marriage Prohibition unconstitutional. The decision was suspended for seven months to give Whitefish Lake time to adopt a membership code and change its electoral code.

“I’m going to look forward to the day my mom finally gets to vote,” said Karen McCarthy, who was barred from voting in the April and May 2021 Whitefish Lake elections because of her descent from “Bill C-31.” “

Karen McCarthy

Karen McCarthy

“My mother was never allowed to vote. And not myself, not my children, so it has affected three generations in my family alone.”

Bill C-31 is an amendment introduced by the federal government in 1985 to retrospectively restore registered status to Indigenous women who were disenfranchised under ancient Indian law by marrying someone without status.

“Wanted re-election”

But like many bands, Whitefish Lake argued that the change violated Aboriginal people’s right to self-government and refused to restore voting rights.

McCarthy said Favel’s ruling does not go far enough for a First Nation where members’ rights are often violated.

“I wanted re-election because I feel like the amount of people stopping her from voting would significantly change the outcome of the election,” McCarthy said in an interview with CBC News.

“Voter suppression is very real in First Nation communities with poor governance, and ours is one of them.”

Favel’s decision found that the rules on banning were applied haphazardly and were not rooted in Whitefish common law, but rather in the adoption of pernicious colonial concepts.

Favel’s ruling also addressed a constitutional challenge to Lorna Jackson-Littlewolf, who was removed as a candidate in the 2021 election because she was in a common law relationship.

Referendum on electoral regulations

Whitefish program manager Rennie Houle, who called the current electoral laws outdated, ambiguous and discriminatory, welcomed the federal court’s decision.

He said a referendum taking place this week will ask members to approve a new electoral law that has taken a year and a half to address these issues.

Houle said the ruling exceeded his expectations as it recognizes Whitefish Lake as an autonomous Treaty 6 nation rather than part of Saddle Lake.

Although both communities have a chief and a council, they are considered one nation under the Indian Act. Traditionally, Saddle Lake has had greater power and wealth due to its larger population.

“We are very pleased with the ruling and the changes that come with this new electoral charter,” said Houle.

“This is a step toward the Whitefish Lake First Nation to develop their own path to self-government in how they want to govern themselves.”

This week’s referendum will be held unilaterally by the Whitefish leadership. The results will be announced on Friday.

Dennis Callihoo, an attorney representing Saddle Lake, declined to comment. CBC made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Saddle Lake’s leadership for comment.


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