'No more hiding': Candidate protest erupts on Sask. First Nation over postponed election

Members of a Saskatchewan First Nation responded in protest on Monday to chief and council postponing its band election for the second time.

Leaders of Witchekan First Nation, located about 130 kilometres west of Prince Albert, have postponed the election because of COVID-19 – it was originally scheduled to take place in January, then June, and now October.

About 30 protesters attended, most of them candidates, according to candidate for council Terence Thomas.

“We kept quiet thinking this election was going to happen on June 6, but the power won’t let it happen,” he said. “No more hiding.”

Thomas said he doesn’t buy that chief and council are postponing the election because of the pandemic. According to the most recent weekly update for the community on May 27, Witchekan Lake First Nation has no cases of COVID-19.

“The transparency and the accountability from the chief and council is not there, and we want answers.”

Thomas said the protest was peaceful, but Chief Anne Thomas described it as “lateral violence,” saying protesters were swearing at her and making untrue accusations.

“It was far from being peaceful,” she said.

“I kept my calm because I’m mature. I did not yell back at anybody, I did not swear back at anybody.”

Chief Thomas said that night, someone tried to set the band office on fire by throwing a pipe through the window.

According to the RCMP, officers from the Spiritwood detachment responded to a “suspicious person” at the band office at about midnight on Tuesday.

Police said there was a backpack on fire that caused some exterior damage to the building and that an object had been thrown through the window.

“This time, we have to keep the Oct. 6 date, but we have to come up with a plan to ensure safety of the voting to happen,” said Chief Thomas.

She said vaccine rates are low in the community because band members are reluctant. Many people, she said, have been backing out of receiving the vaccine last minute.

Although there are no cases of COVID-19 in Witchekan Lake First Nation, Chief Thomas said there are people in isolation. She said the community had variant cases when the decision to postpone was made.

She said she also consulted local elders before chief and council postponed the election.

Another candidate for council, Gordon Jim, said the protest grew throughout the day.

“The longer that we stood, the more and more people heard about it and more people were coming and they were standing behind us.”

Jim said the postponement is unfair to candidates, some who have given up their jobs to run.

Jim and Thomas said it also violates band members’ rights to vote.

“The band members weren’t given any notice or any consultation to extend the election,” said Thomas.

“There’s no equality for the people of Witchekan Lake. There’s no inclusion.”