Off-reserve Abegweit members win right to vote in band elections
Federal Court also rules off-reserve members may run for council
Members of Abegweit First Nation who live off reserve have won the right to vote in their band's elections.
The Federal Court of Canada ruled Wednesday that Abegweit's long-standing voting rules denied Charter rights to off-reserve members.
"Yesterday when I found out, I just couldn't believe it. I cried," said Judy Clark, one of the off-reserve members who started the legal action. "We did this for the grassroots people and for our future generation."
'Now comes the healing'
Abegweit was supposed to hold elections for band council last month, but that was put on hold — by court order — until the matter was resolved.
"The court is of the view that there is ... no rational connection between the objective of the law and the residency requirement," wrote Justice Paul Favel, regarding the band's voting rules. "The court commends the parties for working amicably to attempt to remedy the injustice."
It gives opportunity for all our band members ... to select who they would like to represent them.— Judy Clark
The band council had tried to amend its voting rules several times in recent years. Those efforts failed when plebiscites failed to pass.
Abegweit's off-reserve population continues to grow. It now comprises 43 per cent of the band's 374 members. A lack of housing on band lands in Scotchfort, Morell and Rocky Point is one of the reasons.
In court, the band did not contest that its voting regulations were discriminatory. The band did, however, argue that the position of chief must be held by someone who lives on reserve, in order to ensure smooth running of day to day matters. The court agreed, and maintained the on-reserve residency requirement for chief.
Abegweit First Nation posted a statement on its Facebook page in response to the court ruling.
"Council will not be appealing the decision.... We feel that this decision is very clear and we feel it resolves this important matter for our community," the statement reads in part.
The First Nation has been without a chief since Brian Francis was appointed to the Senate last fall.
According to council member Jacob Jadis, the band wants to hold elections as soon as it can, possibly in June.
Clark, 63, has never voted in a band election.
"It gives opportunity for all our band members ... to select who they would like to represent them," said Clark. "Now comes the healing part."