Indigenous

Ailing 'lifetime' chief of Ojibway Nation of Saugeen appoints wife as successor

The ailing, 'lifetime' chief of a small Ojibway First Nation in Ontario announced this month his wife would take over once he dies, despite repeated attempts over the past decade by members of the 242-person community to change their leadership.

Band members vow to fight appointment fearing continuation of 'dictatorship'

Chief Edward Machimity of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen. (Submitted)

The ailing and embattled lifetime chief of a small Ojibway First Nation in Ontario announced this month he was appointing his wife to replace him at the helm of the community.

Edward Machimity has been customary chief of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, about 400 km north of Thunder Bay, for 34 years, despite repeated attempts over the past decade by members of the 242-person community to change their leadership.

Machimity is currently battling an opposition group before the Federal Court over the community's leadership. A group of community members appointed a new slate of band councillors, known as headmen, during a meeting on Feb. 3.  

Band members say that Machimity runs the band government for the benefit of his family and close friends.

In a May 16-dated letter, which was hand-delivered this week to most of the homes in Saugeen, Edward Machimity stated that his wife Violet Machimity, currently the band's administrator, would become the next chief of the community.

"It is now time to consider the next step in my journey and plan for a smooth and respectful transition for my successor," said the letter, signed by Edward Machimity, who is currently in the Sioux Lookout hospital for diabetes-related ailments.

"Violet has worked at my side as a true partner over the past 34 years."

Edward Machimity also previously appointed his daughter as one of the headmen.

Edward Machimity said in the letter that the "stability of our community's leadership has been an important part of all we have accomplished."

He said he also wanted the band's police chief — his son-in-law Darrell Keesic — to take on a "long-term leadership role" with the band once he retired from the force.

Band members have accused Edward Machimity of using the band's two-member police force to suppress dissent.

Edward Machimity indicated his ailing health may prevent him from attending a June 20-21 treaty gathering that was expected to determine who would be the next chief of the community.

"In case I am not well enough to participate in that discussion, I am putting my succession plan in writing so we can discuss the matter now," the letter said.

"It is the responsibility of the customary chief to appoint his or her successor."

'A little North Korea brewing'

Edward Machimity has been chief since 1985.

Darlene Necan, who was appointed as a new headman during the Feb. 3 meeting, said there is nothing in the band's custom leadership rules, adopted in 1997, that give the customary chief the power to appoint a successor.

Darlene Necan was appointed headman by Ojibway Nation of Saugeen band members on Feb. 3. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

"A lot of people are telling me we cannot let them do this," said Necan. "We have to stand together."

Edward Machimity could not be reached for comment. The band office's voicemail was full on Thursday. Kenora, Ont., lawyer Doug Keshen, who represents the band, did not return a request for comment.

Under the band's custom leadership rules, a chief must undergo a leadership review every 21 years.

Edward Machimity's opponents held a leadership review on Dec. 9, 2018, which was the 21 year-mark of his term under the band's current custom governance code, and decided to oust him.

Necan said she believes community members will be ready to reject Machimity's succession plan at the June gathering and finally break the hold he's had on the community.

"We cannot and will not agree to another 30 years of continuous dictatorship," said Necan.

John Machimity, Chief Edward Machimity's brother, says the First Nation is a 'little North Korea brewing.' (CBC News)

John Machimity, Edward Machimity's brother, said the letter caught people in the community by surprise.

"No one was expecting this," he said. "He's basically set up his leadership pretty much for the next 100 years. He is basically saying it's going to be just them."

John Machimity said he's frustrated that Ottawa has ignored the community's pleas to intervene and instead left it up to members, who don't have much money, to fight for their democratic rights in court.

"We are in Canada here and yet we have a little North Korea brewing on Saugeen #258," said John Machimity, referring to his community's reserve number.

"Nobody is going to take notice until somebody actually gets hurt."

There are 358 First Nations with custom election codes in Canada, according to the Department of Indigenous Services. A handful of bands, primarily in B.C., follow a hereditary system for the band governance.

Ottawa rarely intervenes in political disputes involving bands that operate under a custom election code.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.