Tears after Federal Court ruling ends decades-long 'dictatorship' in northern Ontario First Nation
Judge orders referendum on new election code by the end of October
A self-appointed "chief for life," who named his wife as successor upon his death to keep the leadership of a small First Nation in northern Ontario within his family, has been ousted following a Federal Court ruling delivered Thursday.
The ruling comes amid a years-long struggle between hereditary chief Edward Machimity, his family and community members of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen who were stymied at every turn to challenge decades of hereditary rule and establish an election code.
Federal Court Justice Sébastien Grammond upheld the results of a two-day June 2019 leadership review held by the community under the band's custom code that selected a new slate of chief and councillors — known as headmen.
Grammond said Machimity had no grounds to ignore those results, which met the requirements outlined in the custom leadership code.
"The leaders subject to the review cannot act in a way that frustrates the purpose of the review. Yet, this is exactly what they did," wrote Grammond in his ruling.
"They consistently denied the membership's power to review their leadership and remove them if necessary."
'It's freedom I feel'
Grammond ruled that the June 2019 selection of Ron Machimity Sr. (no direct relation to Edward Machimity) as chief, along with headmen Joyce Medicine, Betty Necan, Darlene Necan and Desiree Jacko, constituted the legitimate government of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, which sits about 400 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
With the ruling, Grammond ended Edward Machimity's 30-year rule of the community, previously described to CBC News by many residents as a "dictatorship."
Machimity's daughter Eileen Keesic also lost her position as a headman, along with John Sapay, a longtime friend of Machimity, who was the only one from the previous band council willing to sit and meet the community opposition.
In a previous interview with CBC News, Machimity said he would remain chief until his death. Machimity, who has health issues and is believed to be in his 70s, then announced his wife Violet Machimity would replace him if he died.
The Winnipeg lawyer for Machimity listed in the court file would not comment or confirm whether they are still retained. Machimity's long-time band lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
New headman Darlene Necan said the ruling left her overwhelmed with emotion because it ended a "dictatorship" that strangled the community.
"I cried, I cried, I have no words, just a feeling of relief came upon me," Necan said.
"For some reason it's freedom I feel, no more of this cloud over us."
WATCH | Saugeen members hold leadership review in 2019:
Faced fear, harassment and bullying
Machimity and his immediate family controlled band services in the First Nation, which has an on-reserve population of about 84 people, and about 242 total members. They decide who gets a new house or renovations, who gets post-secondary education funding or who gets use of the medical van for appointments.
He also named his son-in-law as chief of the community's two-person police force.
Many community members told CBC News, which travelled to the community several times, that Saugeen was controlled through fear, harassment and bullying.
The ruling ordered the new band government to hold a community referendum on a new election code by Oct. 31, 2022. If adopted, the ruling said the election should be held within a year.
New Chief Ron Machimity Sr. said that the proposed new election code was nearly complete.
"There have been a lot of sacrifices made to get to where we are," he said. "What I would like to see is we never repeat this again and set up policies where people do have a voice."
Machimity Sr. said the next step would be getting keys to the band office and access to the community's bank accounts. He also said the new council is considering auditing all the band's finances and natural resource deals which he said never flowed to community members.
"He made promises to people they would have jobs, but none of us got jobs," he said.
"It would be a good idea to check into all that."
'Chief for life'
Despite repeated pleas from community members, Indigenous Services Canada continued to recognize Edward Machimity's rule.
Indigenous Services Canada typically doesn't intervene in internal governance disputes for bands that operate under custom governance codes.
The department did not provide comment on whether it would recognize the new government.
There are 358 First Nations under custom governance codes across the country. Most have some form of electoral system to choose their leaders, but a handful of bands follow a hereditary system.
Edward Machimity was first named chief when the band was created in 1985. Then, in 1997, when the band adopted its own custom governance code known as the "convention," he became chief potentially for life, subject only to a review of his leadership every 21 years.