Band members allege vote-buying on Saskatchewan First Nation

Twelve members of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, 300 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, say they accepted money in return for their votes at different band council elections.

12 people say they’ve accepted cash in return for votes on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation

Leon Weeseekase says a candidate in Makwa Sahgaiehcan band council elections offered him $1,500 for his 'support' and that he refused. (CBC)

Twelve members of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, 300 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, say they accepted money in return for their votes at different band council elections. Most exchanges were between $20 and $200, but one man says he turned down an offer of $1,500 and then went to the RCMP. 

Most people interviewed for the story did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions on the reserve, but two people did agree to speak publicly, including the man who went to RCMP and a former candidate who says voters asked him for money. 

RCMP investigates; says not enough proof

Leon Weeseekase and the garage that he is building next to his house on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation (CBC)

Leon Weeseekase is building an auto repair garage next to his house. He's hoping to fix cars for other residents. He says he was approached by a candidate running for band council elections. Weeseekase says the candidate told him: "I see you've been building a garage at your house. We're willing to give you 1,500 bucks, but I want you to support me in the next election."

"I just looked at him," Weeseekase said. "'What the heck,' I thought." 

He says he refused the money. "I felt sick to my stomach. Why do people do that? Why buy votes? If you really want to get in, then let the people decide," Weekeekase said. 

He then went to the RCMP, which investigated, but said there wasn't enough proof to pursue action. 

The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs says that if anyone suspects inappropriate behaviour during an election, they can make a complaint within 45 days of the election. 

The ministry says it looked at every election at Makwa Sahgaiehcan since 2000 and found no complaints had been filed.

Under the Indian Act, if found to have exchanged money for votes, someone could be barred from elections for six years. 

The chief of the First Nation did not respond to a request for comment on the topic of alleged vote buying in his community. 

Former candidate speaks out

Frank Cheenanow, who ran for the position of band councillor in 2015. (CBC)

A former candidate who ran for election in 2015 says the practice runs both ways. Frank Cheenanow says several voters approached him looking for money. 

"When they came up to me, some of them were friends of mine," Cheenanow said. "And I said to them, I don't have no money to run for council, I'm sorry for that, I'm here for you and I'm going to represent you." 

He says the requests caught him off guard. "It surprised me but I told them, 'It's your vote, it's your future that I'm doing this for. And it's not only for me, it's for us.'"

Other band members who admit to taking cash in return for votes say they know it's unethical but say they don't have a lot of options. 

"It is wrong. I didn't want that money before…" said one woman. "Still I had to take that money for food and other things," she said. "And I don't have no money so I took that money." 

"I've just been playing the game. You know, since I was growing up, it's been going on," one man told CBC. "So, you know, it's normal."

Income gap on Makwa Sahgaiehcan 

Houses on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation. (CBC)

Some band members say there are financial struggles, so the offers of cash are hard to turn down.

According to Statistics Canada, the average income  for people over 15 on Makwa Sahgaiehcan was $16,682 in 2010. By comparison, the chief earned $102,302 in 2014-15. Councillors earned between $88,000 and $121,000.

"Things will probably never change around here," said one man, who accepted $40 on voting day. "And nobody seems to care. Just as long as they get money for their addictions and their alcohol, they'll be happy."

Leon Weeseekase says it's time for the federal government to step in, and that social problems on the reserve are allowing the alleged vote-buying to continue. 

"We need your help," Weeseekase said. "Our people are suffering.  A lot of us want help. Some of us can't say help me or I'm into drugs and I can't get out, I don't know how to stop."