Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic have forced chiefs in British Columbia to vote for their regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations online.
“In this situation it might provide a bit more access to people because they don’t necessarily need to leave wherever they are at the time (to vote),” said Ron Laufer, BCAFN lead electoral officer.
Although this is BCAFN’s first online election, it’s not Laufer’s, and he’s confident the right measures have been put in place to make this successful.
To help with that, chiefs and proxies will have from 6 p.m. on Nov. 17 to 11 a.m. on Nov. 18 to mark their ballots.
“The reason is just to allow for people to have the time to access the voting process online and to ensure that there’s a period of time for people to alleviate any potential issues they may run into,” said Laufer.
In August, an online special chiefs assembly saw a resolution passed to adopt an online voting framework for elections at the annual general meeting in November. The online voting framework was added as a schedule to the BCAFN Governance Manual.
It is to be used during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as “in future elections if, after considering advice from public health authorities, the Board (of Directors) decides that due to exceptional circumstances a meeting will occur at a time when it is unlikely that in-person voting can be done in a safe manner.”
Having access to reliable highspeed internet is a concern for a number of BC First Nations, both rural/remote and urban, says Vanessa West, chief of staff for BCAFN.
“If their community faces internet accessibility issues, our office has offered travel support to an area with increased access,” said West.
This is not an ideal solution, she admits, as COVID-19 cases are on the rise.
“This emphasizes the need for increased internet accessibility to many of our First Nations so that they can remain in their communities while working and participating in initiatives that support their community,” she said.
It’s a point that Denise Williams, CEO for the First Nations Technology Council of BC, also stresses. She says 75 per cent of First Nations communities in BC do not have access to broadband internet connection and fewer than 10 per cent of First Nations homes have access to broadband technology or hardware.
“This has been an issue for 15 years, but now with COVID there’s no way around this issue. It’s been disappointing here at the technology council for us because we’ve been pointing to this to provincial and federal governments.
“The constant requirement is that we have to go to these big telecommunication companies and give them a good ROI (return on investment). That’s what they tell me. We need a return on investment to deliver to these communities. And unfortunately that’s very difficult for very small First Nations. Something needs to change in that model,” said Williams.
The reality, she adds, is that a “high number of chiefs” may have to leave their communities to vote.
To date, says West, some chiefs have enquired but none have made formal requests for help.
West isn’t aware if any chiefs reside in communities that have implemented travel bans. If that is the case, she says, they do have the ability to assign a proxy in their absence.
To vote, Laufer says a computer or laptop will not be required. Voting can be done with a data plan on a cell phone.
“I think BCAFN has put a lot of time and resources into putting this together so I think they should really be commended in doing so. It’s not an easy process to do in the middle of a pandemic,” said Laufer.
“The issue that's brought up there about Internet really speaks to infrastructure much more than just Internet,” said Terry Teegee, who is hoping to serve his second consecutive term as BC regional chief.
“It's growing First Nations communities, addition to reserves, housing,” said Teegee.
“COVID-19 really demonstrated the shortcomings of not only society but also in First Nations communities,” said Cheryl Casimer, who is Teegee’s only challenger for the regional chief position.
She says she is concerned about the ability of chiefs in rural communities to vote because of the lack of connectivity.
“We're in a pandemic and that is challenging. People don't really want to leave their community to go and vote. We have some work cut out ahead of us between now and then,” said Casimer.
Both Teegee and Casimer have taken up virtual campaigning, making use of Zoom calls.
Early in the campaign, Casimer undertook a road trip to Chilliwack, having been invited to present in person. She stopped along the way to visit chiefs but “we met outside for strict social distancing.”
Both Teegee and Casimer will be travelling to Vancouver to participate in a leadership debate to be held Nov. 17. Chiefs will tune in virtually.
There are 204 chiefs eligible to vote. In 2017, Teegee said approximately 142 voted.
“Likely this one can have a higher attendance rate,” he said.
Votes are also being cast for the female youth representative
West says the winner for regional chief will be announced the afternoon of Nov. 18.
Measures have been put in place, she adds, in the event there is a tie vote and another ballot has to be issued.
“Notification to our membership identifies that the timeframe of the AGM may be extended and processes have been identified in this specific instance,” said West.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.