The race to be chief

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson during a campaign stop in Prince Albert. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Advance polling opens Wednesday for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s general election, which is pitting four challengers against incumbent chief Tammy Cook-Searson.

It’s the first time voters will be able to cast ballots in Prince Albert – a move to make voting easier for nearly 4,000 band members living off reserve. They’ll help elect a chief and 12 councillors to represent six electoral districts.

With over 10,000 members, the band is the largest First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Cook-Searson is running for her fifth term. She says the band’s reserves still suffer from gaps in education, housing and infrastructure, and she promises to devote her efforts to lobbying Regina and Ottawa to fill them.

On education, she noted that band schools get far less than provincial schools on a per student basis and need more federal money to level the playing field. She said the past council was looking at the option of forming a separate education including all the band’s communities.

Housing is also high on her agenda. She said more than 200 people in La Ronge are waiting for a place to live.

“It’s one of the biggest issues,” she said. “We have overcrowding; we have people who don’t have a place to stay; we always have a high number of people on the housing waiting list.”

When asked for her top priority, though, the chief didn’t hesitate: she wants to build a $17-million wellness treatment centre to combat addictions and help her people overcome the legacy of residential schools.

Cook-Searson said the band has set aside $2.1 million dollars for the project and met with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Wall to pitch it. Both were supportive, she said. But the band still needs to complete a business plan, and then she’ll go back and lobby for funding commitments.

“We need to keep putting on the pressure,” she said. “We do have full support from our community. It’s been really amazing. People are saying we can’t build it soon enough.”
She hopes to see the project through during her next term.

“There is a lot of healing that has to happen in our community,” she said. “Just giving people a place to go to know that they’re not alone.”

One of Cook-Searson’s rivals, Al Halkett, said he holds her in high esteem, along with all those who served on the previous council.

“They took on a job that is extremely difficult,” he said. “I have no personal animosity. I think they’re wonderful people, and anyone who puts their head forward to be lopped off and takes the abuse that a candidate for our band council does, I acknowledge their bravery.”

But Halkett charges that council hasn’t been sufficiently open with the membership. His key pledge is to hold a general band meeting every year, to keep in close touch with his constituents.

“For too long there has been a top-down government where the chief and council have been telling people what’s good for them,” Halkett said. “What we are hoping do is to have all the directors and councillors there, explaining exactly what they do and just giving information on the band.”

He says he’s spent more than 25 years working with the band’s young people, as a teacher, tutor and retention worker. He fears that youth in the community don’t have enough pride in their Cree heritage, and wants to bring more cultural programming into the school curriculum.

Halkett isn’t the only educator in the race. Bruce McKenzie has about 25 years of experience with the band’s young people, working as a teacher and principal at schools all over the band’s communities.

Like Cook-Searson and Halkett, he said he’s just as worried about the education gap that holds First Nations youth behind. He said he wants to work with Northlands College to create a more decentralized way of delivering post-secondary education.

“My plan is to bring the programming to the students, bring them into the communities,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie’s other priorities include expanding infrastructure and protecting trappers. He said he’s not satisfied with the record of the last council.

“Some of the things I pointed out,” he said, “they should be in place.”

McKenzie said he’s getting strong support, and feels like people are looking for ways to vote strategically against Cook-Searson.

McKenzie may be critical of the current leadership, but he’s hardly as biting as Robert Ballantyne, who’s making the most radical proposals of any candidate in the race to be chief. He said that virtually all band governments in Canada, including in La Ronge, are “corrupt.”

“What we see across Canada with chief and council, is they practically rule as a quasi-dictatorship,” he said. “We need to reign in the political corruption. We need to restore a credible governance system where the people would have faith.”

To do that, he wants to see the band break free from the Indian Act and establish its own judicial system.

Ballantyne’s other top priority is fighting to stop the next youth suicide. The band lost three young girls to suicide last year, and none of the candidates want to stand by as another one is buried. Ballantyne said his plan is to go back to “holistic” solutions that focus on the whole family.

Cook-Searson said she’s also dedicated to addressing the crisis, and laid out the measures the band took to bring more mental health services to young people. But she said she wants to avoid politicizing the issue.

The fifth and final candidate is Henry Sanderson, a former mining worker who says his priority is economic development. He wants to attract more industry to the band’s communities.
“The band membership needs careers and jobs,” he said, “and that’s what I’m offering them.”

He said he has an investor lined up to bring a big steel plant in and train workers from the reserves, but wouldn’t divulge any information on the deal.

The contenders have another week to wrap up their campaigns, before election day on March 31. Cook-Searson said it’s been a positive race so far. She said she’s enjoying knocking on doors across the band’s vast territories.

“It’s been really good to just go visit people,” she said. “It’s nice because it gives me an opportunity to hear directly from them.”

Though she’s now running for her fifth term, she knows she needs to fight for re-election.

“I never underestimate anyone,” she said, “and I don’t take being the chief for granted, because it’s up to the people.”

Advance polls open from 12 to 7 p.m. in salon A of the Prince Albert inn Wednesday. Election day is in the same spot on March 31. In addition to the five chief candidates, 41 band members are vying for a spot on council. Here they are, broken down by their electoral division:

Mary L. Bighead, David P. Charles, Tracey L. Halkett, Angus R.J. Mirasty, Blanche Mirasty, Keith Mirasty
Leon Jerry Charles, Gerald Robin McKenzie, Clifford B. McKenzie
Adam John Charles, John Terry Ratt, James Moses Charles, Norman Paul Ross, Yvonne Prescilla Roberts
Larry H. McKenzie, Kenny Ratt
Larry C. Charles, Linda A. Charles, John W.L. McKenzie, Angus G.J.McLeod, Bernice Roberts, John Patrick Roberts, Joyce Roberts, Lester G. Roberts
Adele E. Bell, Eldon E. Bird, Michael J. Bird, Nina A.J. Bird, Krystal K. Charles, Cole T. Cook, Jimmy Halkett, Irwin Hennie, Leonard H. Isbister, Percy Mirasty, Stewart Mirasty, Joan Olsen, Gary R. Parada, Ann R. Ratt, Sam H. Roberts, Dennis B. Sanderson, Ruth Thompson