Brenda Johnson, a widely respected social worker and community organizer from Ohsweken, ON, about 90 minutes south of Toronto, is being barred from running in the Six Nations Reserve’s elections. She was denied ballot access on transparently frivolous grounds by Commissioner Steve Williams, a politically connected appointee of the federal works agency known as the Six Nations Elected Council.
The situation demonstrates the pervasive level of corruption that indigenous people endure in their own communities — much of it propagated by other indigenous people.
Williams has refused to enforce the provisions of the Reserve’s Election Code on the administrative council’s incumbent candidates — many of whom are unqualified to seek reelection, under the recently adopted Code’s terms. Earlier this year, some of the Reserve’s federal administrators pushed hard for election code reforms that reduced the size of the Council, made the remaining positions at-large, established a two-term limit, and required candidates to have a high school diploma to be eligible for office.
For incumbents, those new requirements are not being enforced. Many have held their seats for decades, and others lack high-school equivalency degrees. For challengers, like Johnson, the Reserve’s election commissioner is inventing a slew of new administrative requirements that are not even mentioned in the Code. That practice has prompted accusations of bias in the administration, and some have called on Williams to resign his commissionership.
There is no appeals process for the Commissioner’s unilateral determination to restrict ballot access for particular candidates. Some members of the administrative council have pledged to amend the law to include an appeal process, and are currently taking steps to do so.
“It’s not a democracy,” Johnson said in a video widely circulated on social media.
Heightening political tensions is the community’s longstanding political schism.
The Six Nations Elected Council is constructed and governed by the Indian Act, is a federal works agency of Canada, and is tasked with administering federal programs on the Six Nations Reserve.
That body is not a sovereign government and was not a party to the rich Treaty history enjoyed by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. But in recent decades, the elected federal administrative council has misrepresented itself to counterparties, with some arms of that body claiming to constitute a sovereign nation while others liken the agency to a municipality.
The federal Indian agents’ behavior profoundly offends the sovereign Haudenosaunee government, which sees those misrepresentations as erosive of the sovereign government — the Chiefs of which are condoled under the Great Law of Peace, as they’ve been since the Confederacy’s founding in 1142. It’s the oldest still-existent constitutional democracy in the world.
Just last month, the elected Council rebranded itself and its letterhead, while modifying its legal name to “Six Nations of the Grand River”. That move has angered many in the community who see it as another deliberate, strategic offensive being propagated by Indian agents who wish to extinguish the sovereign government’s political claims so that they can assert those claims themselves.
“One of the biggest mistakes we made was in 2006 when we allowed the elected Council to sit on our side of the negotiating table during the Caledonia reclamation,” explains one elder, reflecting on the ongoing movement towards political liberation. “It deluded SNEC into believing that they are sovereign, and it deluded Canada into thinking they could negotiate away our rights with the federal Indian agents they themselves installed.”
“Why is Canada so incompetent that they can’t negotiate with the correct government?” he asks. “Because the central objective of the Indian Act is our genocide — to assimilate us out of existence and to crush our sovereign government and with it a body of law that evolves entirely independently of the Magna Carta.”