WINNIPEG — Members of a Manitoba First Nation will each be handed a mask, gloves and sanitizer as they head to the ballot box on Saturday.
“We’ve never gone through this before,” said Shawn Kent, a councillor for Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. “It’s unprecedented and it’s a different way of doing things that we are going to find out if it’s viable or not.”
First Nations across the country are deciding whether to hold elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brokenhead, about 65 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, chose earlier this week to go ahead with its election for chief and four council members.
It was a difficult decision, said Chief Deborah Smith. Officials were receiving constant and changing information about the novel coronavirus and steps had already been made to hold the election.
Mail-in ballots were sent out weeks ago to about 1,200 community members who live off reserve. For the 700 members who live on the reserve, however, Smith said there was a lot of anxiety.
“There were people that felt that because of the health factors that we should delay. But there was also a voice from the community that wanted to proceed … so that they could exercise their democratic rights.”
Marc Miller, minister for Indigenous Services Canada, urged First Nations across the country to delay elections for six months.
But First Nations in many regions voiced concern that if they chose to delay it would have a serious consequence — a gap in leadership during a health crisis.
The Indian Act says that a chief and council cannot extend their terms. First Nations communities were concerned that without an election, an interim government or third party would be put in place to lead the community.
Word spread throughout Indigenous communities that this meant they would be forced to hold elections, said Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
The group representing 62 First Nations in Manitoba reached out to the minister last month about the concerns. Dumas said eight First Nations elections were already scheduled in the next three months for Manitoba.
Dumas said that last week the minister let communities know that a temporary regulatory option had been introduced to allow First Nations leaders to continue in their roles for up to six months, with a potential extension for another six months.
“During this pandemic, the health and well-being of Indigenous communities is our primary focus,” Miller said in a statement Thursday.
Dumas said it’s the right step but it should have come much sooner.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is going to be recommending all communities delay elections, he said.
“It’s quite a scary thing to think about what could possibly happen with having our elections.”
But, ultimately, it will be up to local leadership.
Smith said Brokenhead leaders considered what a delay on short notice would mean and consulted with members. Some wanted to delay, but many thought it was important to go ahead.
Saturday’s vote will have extensive precautions to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, she added.
Each person who votes at the recreation centre will get a special personal protective equipment kit, which includes a mask, gloves, sanitizer and a pen. Only one person will be allowed in at a time and there will be Plexiglas between the voter and electoral officer.
Extra security has been hired to ensure people waiting to vote stay far enough apart. Voters driving into the community will be screened for signs of illness and their recent travel history and will be required to leave immediately after.
“The way things have been done in the past is considerably different than the way we are going to have to do it now,” Kent said.