First Nations can now delay elections during COVID-19 pandemic, says federal minister

First Nations which postpone their elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be penalized by the federal government, as some had feared.

Federal officials had previously warned First Nations a delay would create a 'governance gap'

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has announced First Nations can postpone their elections due to COVID-19 without penalty from the federal government, as many had feared. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

First Nations which postpone their elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be penalized by the federal government, as some had feared.

"I think this is a constructive change. It's unfortunate it didn't happen sooner," said University of Saskatchewan law professor Dwight Newman.

Newman, a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous rights in constitutional law, noted the change comes too late for First Nations communities which held votes over the past week.

In a statement Friday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is now recommending that First Nations suspend all elections during the pandemic. Miller said health and safety are the government's top priority and the government will work with First Nations when new dates are set.

University of Saskatchewan law professor Dwight Newman says the federal government's new position on First Nations elections is a"constructive change." (Dwight Newman)

"Canada recognizes the health risks of holding elections during the COVID-19 pandemic," Miller said in a written statement. Miller was not available for an interview Friday.

The announcement to wave off the elections came after talks with public health officials and affected First Nations, said an official in Miller's office.

Many First Nations leaders had wanted to delay their votes. They said large gatherings for an election could spread the coronavirus.

But they said they felt pressured by the government. They feared that if they didn't go ahead, the federal government could refuse to recognize delay much-needed medical supplies or emergency relief.

Newman and other experts said First Nations were right to be worried. A government memo obtained by CBC News warned First Nations not have a "governance gap" when the fixed terms expired.

It listed a number of safety tips for hosting the election during the outbreak. Election officials should supply 50 pens and pencils and clean them after each use; voters should be encouraged to bring their own pens and pencils; and voting tables and screens should be cleaned "every 5-10 voters."

Lawyer Maggie Wente, who specializes in Indigenous law said many of her clients were calling her in a panic.

"They're forcing First Nations into a really awful dilemma. This is a huge health risk," Wente had said.

Saskatchewan MP Gary Vidal called on Miller to clarify the situation for First Nations. Following the announcement Friday, Vidal thanked Miller.

"This is welcome news for many First Nations," Vidal wrote. "Looking forward to continuing to work with you and your office during this difficult time." 

Miller's statement allows First Nations to make their own decision without federal funding consequences, whether they follow the Indian Act or First Nations Elections Act.

The Red Pheasant Cree Nation and others went ahead with elections last week, while the Lac La Ronge Indian Band decided to delay for one month. Voting is underway Friday at the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation.