After months of controversy about last fall’s election in Wemindji, Matthew Coon Come says Chief Walter Hughboy should listen to demands for a new vote.
Wemindji has been divided since the election was held last fall. Long-time Chief Walter Hughboy was re-elected by a wide margin. But there have been persistent rumours of election irregularities.
“If they want an election, they should have one,” Grand Chief Coon Come told The Nation. “The people should be listened to. As I understand it, nobody’s doing that.”
Fifteen Wemindji residents went so far as to sign a petition to have the election redone. When they were turned away by Hughboy, they took their complaints to a Quebec judge. The judge said Wemindji should consider changes to its election rules, but in the end, he dismissed the complaint and let the election stand.
But Coon Come says the dissidents should still be heard. “People still disagree with the way it was done. They should get it over with. If the people want it, there should be another election.”
The dissidents considered mounting another court case in Val d’Or, but were discouraged by the high cost. They’ve turned to the Cree Regional Authority for financial help to mount their legal challenge.
Neither side in the dispute has returned The Nation’s calls in recent weeks. But in an interview last January, Clarence Tomatuk, Chief Hughboy’s main opponent in last fall’s election, said the controversy isn’t going away. “It’s not going to go way. There’s a lot of discussion in Wemindji about that. There are a lot of feelings of mistrust and dishonesty,” he said.
“There are all kinds of rumours. Some are true, some are not.”
One early rumour was that there was ballot-stuffing in the election, but that proved to be untrue. Complaints have also been levied against the short amount of time allowed for nominating candidates. Another complaint is that the returning officer didn’t count how many people were present at the nomination meeting before the election. That number is important because there is a minimum number of people needed to make the nominations valid. The returning officer, Rev. Ian Thomas, left the community shortly after the vote and couldn’t be contacted.
Before he left, Thomas told The Nation that the band council’s list of eligible voters wasn’t up to date.
Hughboy won 130 votes in the election, compared to 80 for Tomatuk.
Hughboy wouldn’t comment on the dispute, but his supporters say there’s no reason to redo the election. They say the complaints should have been put to rest when the Quebec judge let the election stand.
Hughboy’s supporters say there’s more to the dispute than just election irregularities. Hughboy has been chief for 14 years and has acquired a lot of power and perhaps a few enemies. His opponents thought last fall’s election was their chance to finally elect another chief. But that didn’t work, and now they’re acting like sore losers.
Hughboy’s supporters say the dispute is being stirred up by outsiders whose tactics don’t appeal to long-time Wemindji residents, most of whom are happy with Hughboy. They point out that soon after the election, someone threw a rock through the chief’s window. Hughboy has left the rock imbedded in his wall as a reminder.
A common complaint about Hughboy is that he spends a lot of time outside the community in the South and doesn’t hold public band meetings. “When a decision needs to be made, he often isn’t around,” said Tomatuk.
But Hughboy’s supporters respond by saying that travelling goes with the job. The chief must attend meetings with Hydro-Quebec, Cree lawyers, the school board, the Grand Council and so on.
Hughboy’s opponents also complain about how Hughboy has run the Sakami Eeyou Corporation, which administers millions of dollars granted to Wemindji in 1979 as compensation for excessive water levels in the Sakami Lake reservoirs.
The exact amount of money in the fund is not clear. The band council claims the amount is $8 million. But other sources say the fund is supposed to have $25 million.
Wemindji residents are supposed to have access to the Sakami Eeyou Corporation’s financial statements. But Tomatuk said he asked to see the statements, and was denied.
“They don’t give information to anybody,” said Tomatuk. “You hear a lot of things that the band is doing that aren’t disclosed. There isn’t enough consultation with the community—only after the fact. It’s the people’s money.”
But Hughboy’s supporters respond by saying Tomatuk just wants to divide up the money and give it out to Wemindji residents. That would be frittering the money away, they say. They praise Hughboy for investing the money in long-term business ventures, like Air Wemindji. They claim that these ventures are doing well, and they say this has annoyed the CRA and Air Creebec, which competes with Air Wemindji for passengers and freight. This rivalry between the Wemindji band and regional Cree entities is adding fuel to the controversy about the election, say the chief’s supporters.
The Nation has asked to see the financial reports of Air Wemindji and the Sakami Eeyou Corporation, but was told only Wemindji residents can have access.