First Nation’s lifetime chief goes to Federal Court to preserve position

First Nation’s lifetime chief goes to Federal Court to preserve position

Community members selected new leaders during meeting on Feb. 3

Jorge Barrera · CBC News · Posted: Feb 07, 2019 12:39 PM ET | Last Updated: February 7

Chief Edward Machimity of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen in northern Ontario is using the courts to fight back against a challenge to his leadership. (Submitted)

The lifetime chief of a First Nation in northern Ontario has gone to the Federal Court of Canada to try to stop the attempt to topple his decades-long rule.

The Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, located about 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, filed for a judicial review with the Federal Court in Winnipeg on Feb. 1 to quash a move by community members to install new leadership under the band’s customary laws.

Chief Edward Machimity, who is in his 70s, has held his position since 1986. He became lifetime chief after the band adopted its own custom leadership selection code in 1997.

The code calls for a leadership review every 21 years. Machimity has told CBC News he will remain chief of the 242-member community until his death.

Band members allege he shares little information about the community’s affairs and runs the majority of band services for the benefit of his immediate family and friends.

Machimity has also been accused by his opponents of using the band’s police to suppress dissent in Saugeen. His son-in-law is the band’s police chief.

His supporters say he’s a staunch defender of his community’s treaty rights and always puts members’ interests first.

New leadership chosen at meeting

Opposition band members held a meeting on Dec. 9 at a motel in Savant Lake, Ont., about 20 kilometres south of the Saugeen reserve. They decided to replace the band leadership at a meeting on Feb. 3, when Chief Machimity would be officially due for his 21-year review. 

When Machimity’s opponents gathered at the same hotel on Feb. 3, they selected four new band headmen, or councillors. They also decided a new chief would be selected during a planned community meeting in June, said Darlene Necan, 59, a newly appointed headman and longtime advocate for leadership change.

The band members were served with Federal Court papers during the meeting. The filing argues the meeting wasn’t “authorized” by the band’s custom leadership selection code. The meeting also received a visit from three provincial police officers and a band police constable. 

Darlene Necan was appointed as a headman by Ojibway Nation of Saugeen band members on Feb. 3. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

The Federal Court application also seeks an interim order recognizing Chief Machimity, headmen Eileen Keesic, John Sapay and Gladys Ombash as the “lawfully appointed” leadership of the band until the rendering of a final ruling.

Keesic is the chief’s daughter. Ombash has relinquished her position and given it to her daughter and band member Betty Necan, who is named in the court action. Betty Necan was confirmed as one of the four new headmen at the meeting on Feb. 3.

“The respondents are purporting to remove the customary chief and headmen from ‘lifetime’ positions … without colour or right,” the filing says.

“The respondents have … failed to observe principles of natural justice and procedural fairness.”

The Federal Court referred the matter to case management, where a judge would meet with the parties with the aim of mediating the dispute.

A woman who answered the phone at the Saugeen band office said Chief Machimity, Keesic and band manager Violet Machimity, Chief Machimity’s wife, were unavailable for comment.

The band police station at the entrance to the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen reserve in northern Ontario. Machimity’s son-in-law is the chief of police. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Lawyers Robert Watchman and Julia Ryckman of the Winnipeg firm Pitblado LLP, who are representing the band, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Saugeen’s band lawyer, Doug Keshen, said he couldn’t comment because he isn’t representing the band in the legal proceedings.

‘Time to step up’

​Ottawa rarely intervenes in political disputes involving bands that operate under a custom election code. There are 358 First Nations with their own codes in Canada, according to the Department of Indigenous Services.

The headmen selected by Saugeen community members at the Feb. 3 meeting retained a lawyer this week.

Ron Machimity, 60, was appointed as a headman by Ojibway Nation of Saugeen band members on Feb. 3.(Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Ron Machimity, 60, was one of the four members selected as a new headman. His father, Gilbert Machimity, who died in April 2000, was one of the founding members of the band and an original headman.

Gilbert Machimity said that under the First Nation’s custom rules he should have replaced his father on council.

He said his father told him before he died not to fight Chief Machimity if he wasn’t appointed successor because it would make things worse and lead to the deterioration of their custom code.

“That is why I was keeping quiet,” he said. “He told me, ‘You will know the time to step up.’ And that is what I am doing today.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC’s Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

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