The Prince Albert Grand Council is selecting its next leader Tuesday, as four-term grand chief Ron Michel enters retirement.
“It’s certainly a big day,” the 65-year-old Michel said. “It’s hard. I’ll miss everyone.”
Three men – Brian Hardlotte, Elmer Ballantyne and Charles Whitecap – are competing to lead the group, which represents 12 First Nations in central and northern Saskatchewan. They spent Monday circling around the Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre, trying to lock up enough delegates to secure a win.
Hardlotte served as vice chief until last year, where he worked closely with Michel. He called the outgoing grand chief a “mentor,” whose departure is an emotional moment for the council.
“I had the privilege and the honour to work with a great man, a great leader,” Hardlotte said.
He said he plans to carry forward Michel’s “legacy,” especially work they did to bring a First Nations health centre to Prince Albert.
Hardlotte’s other priorities centre on housing, education and justice. He said First Nations have to put up a unified front and push all levels of government to fulfill their commitments. He also stressed the importance of developing community strategic plans to address the suicide crisis in Saskatchewan’s north.
“In Stanley Mission, my community, we just lost another young person,” Hardlotte said.
He stressed that the council’s 12 First Nations have to “assert their sovereignty” and call for treaty-based funding from Ottawa.
That’s a message shared by his rival Elmer Ballantyne, a former vice chief and current instructor at First Nations University. Ballantyne said the council has to push for long-term financing to conquer challenges like housing. Like Hardlotte, he said the council’s members need to take a proactive line with the feds.
“We can’t always be directed by the federal government. We have to initiate some of those things,” he said. “Right now, a lot of the services that are provided to us are imposed on us.”
Ballantyne has run for the grand chief position three times before. He said Grand Chief Michel’s retirement is an opportunity for change, and he thinks he’s the person who can deliver it.
“Brian’s been there,” he said. “I think it’s time we take another direction.”
The third man in the race, Charles Whitecap, plays on his 40 years of experience as a councillor with Shoal Lake First Nation and as a political advisor to the Prince Albert Grand Council.
Whitecap is a colourful character, sporting a long goatee beard and an eye patch partly hidden behind sunglasses. He’s eager to talk about governance.
“My priorities are to review the structures and instruments of the grand council and establish a more direct line of communication from the chiefs to the federal government,” he said.
He’s also proposing a new forum that he says will better integrate band councillors into the grand council.
“The structure right now has been around as long as I can remember,” he said. “I think it’s time it gets reviewed.”
The candidates say they’ve been making the rounds to communities, with trips as far afield as Fond du Lac and Black Lake.
Michel had advice for all of them as he took the podium to address the delegates to the council’s assembly. “Be kind to your people,” he said. Then he joked: “especially your voters.”
“Talk to your people, you’re no higher than anybody else,” he told them. “You take care of your people and you’ll never regret it.”
His words earned a standing ovation.