Nationally celebrated Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence won a second term to lead her embattled community in elections last month. But Spence, who galvanized the country, gained massive media coverage and helped create a movement during her six-week hunger strike last winter, nonetheless won only 42% of the 507 votes cast in a four-person race.
Still, Spence expressed gratitude towards her supporters in the community and is focussing on the work ahead.
“The numbers don’t bother me, I’m happy to have the support I have in the community,” said Spence. “There are a lot of people saying we’re going to do this together and that’s what we’ll do. It will be a challenging three years but I’m very excited and hoping I don’t get too many gray hairs,” she laughed.
Spence’s advantages as incumbent and a national figure didn’t mask the reality that, on the ground, little has changed in Attawapiskat. Ongoing financial transparency issues also supplied ammunition to her election opponents in an often-hostile contest. A 2011 Deloitte audit revealed that, since 2005, only 20% of the band’s expenses were properly documented. Under Spence’s administration beginning in 2010, that rate improved to 33%. Still, other candidates argued that more improvements were needed, starting with increased communication between leadership and the local residents.
“There has been a lack of communication issue with the community as a whole,” said election candidate Bruce Shisheesh. “The chief didn’t consult the community on a number of issues, one example being her hunger strike. She didn’t tell anyone what was happening and the next thing we knew she was in Ottawa for six weeks.”
Although the community continues to struggle with infrastructure problems, Spence is looking forward to the benefits she expects will flow from prospective revenue-sharing opportunities. In this, all four candidates supported improving relations with both government and the private sector.
Other challengers in the election included band councillor Christine Kataquapit, who replaced Spence as interim chief during the hunger strike, and Conrad Ihatail.
Prior to the August 27 election, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Betty Ann Lavallée called on Attawapiskat to postpone balloting since off-reserve band members are barred from voting outside the community. Almost half (43%) of Attawapiskat’s registered population of 3,472 currently resides off-reserve, meaning these band members were unable to vote unless they returned home.
In her recommendation, Lavallée cited a 1999 Supreme Court ruling, which found that all elections held under the Indian Act must extend voting rights to those living off reserve. Many First Nations in Canada have yet to adapt to the 14-year-old Supreme Court decision, she noted.
Attawapiskat rejected propositions for a remote balloting system three years ago. Spence says she is open to revisiting the issue, but warns that the policies cannot be instituted overnight.
“Leadership alone is being blamed for this balloting, but the community members need to come forward and be a part of the process,” said Spence, adding that a working group would be established to ensure wide participation in overhauling the community’s election code.