By Debbi Christinck
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Pikwakanagan- Concerns about addiction issues, the land claim, the relationship with the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO), the purchase of $2 million in property, ZOOM meetings by council and a lack of community meetings dominated the five-hour election platform afternoon in which candidates for chief and council for the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation (AOPFN) were able to deliver a speech and answer questions.
While the format allowed 20 minutes to each of the three candidates running for chief and the 14 running for council, it was up to each candidate how they used their time. Some took the entire 20 minutes to read their platform or speak about their platform, while others spent part of the time delivering their platform and the rest answering questions. It was clear some of the 100 band members present during the Saturday afternoon meeting were not happy when they were not given an opportunity to ask questions of some of the candidates during the session, although it was made clear the candidates would be around during the afternoon to deal with questions individually.
Running for chief are: incumbent Chief Wendy-Anne Jocko, who is completing her first term as chief; former chief Greg Sarazin and long-time council member Jim Meness.
Running for council are: Angelina Commanda (incumbent); Barbara Sarazin (incumbent); Catherine Bernard; Dale Benoit; Don Bilodeau; Justine Belaire; Karen Whalen; Loretta (Budgie) Nadeau; Mervin Sarazin (incumbent); Natalie Commanda; Shelley Belaire; Sherry Kohoko; Steve Benoit (incumbent) and Vicky Two-Axe.
Chief Jocko reflected on the past term and shared her vision for the coming term.
“It has been my honour to be your Chief for the past three years and to have been a councillor in the term before that,” she said.
“Thank you for placing your faith in me and allowing me to serve.”
She noted she has been proud to represent the AOPFN wherever she was sent or invited to attend.
COVID pandemic restrictions created an entirely different dynamic in community life and community management, she said.
“Routines were disrupted, and life seemed less predictable.
Council often pulled in different directions,” she noted. “I am happy to say that, despite the difficulties, we achieved significant milestones in our continued investment in renewable energy and we successfully completed major projects, progressively advanced projects initiated in earlier terms, and began new projects and developed capacity on many fronts at Pikwakanagan.”
Pikwakanagan’ s own Child Welfare Agency has been instituted and is growing in scope, she said. As well, she has begun conversations to open an Addictions Treatment Facility, Cultural Centre, new Administrative Building and have support for an Urban Reserve Initiative.
“The new water treatment facility, though delayed, is still scheduled to be built,” she added.
As well, there are 12 new rapid housing modules with more to come, she said.
“We have committed to reviving our cultural practices by introducing our quarterly feasts and other ceremonies such as our recent Round Dance,” she said.
The year 2023 is the 150th anniversary of the Establishment of Golden Lake Indian Band number 39, she said.
“In 1857, five family heads (Joseph Tenesco, Michel Pesindawatch, Paul Pesindawatch, Ignace Shawinasaketch and Benoit Konini), representing 30 people, petitioned for land where they had focused their activities at Golden Lake for several generations,” she said. “They asked for 200 acres for each of the five families.”
Canada purchased the land for the reserve from Ontario at 10 cents per acre ($156.10 for 1,561 acres). It was patented to Indian Affairs in 1873.
An anniversary event will be held this year, she said.
Chief Jocko said council has been working on creating an urban reserve in Ottawa and communication with members has improved, including the live streaming of council meetings.
Council acquired property locally with the Rattray and Kilby properties on Golden Lake and are in talks for the urban reserve property, she added.
“The urban reserve will reinforce Pikwakanagan’s position as the only Algonquin reserve in Ontario ensuring that we are `on site’ for any partnerships and available for engagement,” she said. “We will also be more accessible to members who reside and work in Ottawa.”
Chief Jocko promised in her next term to look at succession planning issues and employ, train and advance opportunities for members to work in the community. Wage parity is under review to ensure pay is equal to non-Indigenous organizations, she added.
The chief addressed the land claim process, noting it has been undertaken under the work of many previous chiefs.
“For over 30 years hard-working councillors have advocated for the views and security of our membership and worked to build a strong Algonquin Nation that includes the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation as the most experienced and established community,” she said.
“I want to make sure that Algonquin people are not held back by a lack of vision, by lies and misinformation, by an inability to work together, by individuals who are motivated by envy or greed, or by other groups who think we are not entitled to represent our people in our territory,” she said.
She also called for common civility and urged the community to connect together.
“As a community we must turn away from negativity, the constant grumblers and nay-sayers,” she said. “They are not just expressing a different opinion. In fact, they deliberately set out to disrupt or cause trouble for their own ends.”
Chief Jocko said she wanted to build relationships in the community, territory and country and embrace and celebrate the diversity of the community.
“It is time that we turned toward each other to create the world we want, to decide for ourselves how we want to live. And, to do it in the Anishnabe Algonquin way,” the chief said. “Time to bring back values like: tolerance, compassion, pride in our differences, respect for democracy, cooperation.”
As a long-time member of council, Councillor Meness said he put a lot of thought and consideration into his decision to run for chief.
His 24 years on council have prepared him for the job, he said. He joined council in 1999 and has been re-elected each time. Adding he did not bring a long speech, but intended to speak more off the cuff, he said he would allow time for questions and was open to discussion.
“I’ve learned a lot through the years with the negotiations,” he said.
His decades of time on council also gives him a lot of corporate knowledge, he stressed.
The last term of council has been a difficult one, he said. COVID took over for much of the term and this affected what council was able to do. He acknowledged there has been criticism council is still holding ZOOM meetings, which were brought in during the early stages of the COVID pandemic.
“I will commit to having in-person meetings,” he said. “We can’t expect our staff to go to work every day and council stay virtual.”
He said as the issue of the Agreement in Principle (AIP) and land claim has been discussed in the community there has been a lot of concern.
“I hear a lot of angst about what is going on,” he said.
There are people who are saying the community needs to be saved, he noted.
“Save it from what?” Councillor Meness asked. “We have saved our tax-free status. We won’t lose our reserve unless we want something different.”
He noted these are some of the things which have been agreed to which Pikwakanagan wanted.
“We want to govern ourselves in all aspects,” he said.
Coun.Meness said having the community come together for fun events recently has been wonderful to see and something he wants to see more of.
“I want unity in the community,” he said.
The importance of community togetherness and having more events together is something he would work toward, he promised.
Coun. Meness said he would promise fiscal accountability and financial accountability.
“There has been spending that should have been further researched,” he said. “We have to ensure our First Nation does not go into the hole.”
He pointed out the economic development team at AOPFN has been working hard and good things are happening. He also noted the work on the urban reserve is something very positive.
“If you have the right council, a council that is united, you can go places,” he said.
Coun. Meness answered several questions from the floor. The first was about the drug use and the fentanyl and meth crisis in the community. When told it appears nothing has been done about the serious drug problem and the many members who have been lost to drug overdoses and addiction, he was asked what he would do.
“We have been speaking with the OPP,” he said. “They say they can’t go by third-hand information.”
This is an issue which is not just up to chief and council to address but the whole community, he added.
A second question dealt with the acquisition of two off-reserve properties which were recently purchased.
“I do myself have concerns,” Coun. Meness admitted.
He pointed out this cost the community around $2.2 million, “which brings me back to financial accountability.”
He added the process was done in the open and a vision for these properties is emerging. When asked if the mortgage would be paid off by users of the properties, Coun. Meness said “eventually.”
When asked about the tax free status at Pikwakanagan and the Indian Act under the negotiations, he stressed the tax free status will remain and Pikwakanagan will remain as has been agreed in negotiations.
“Unless we choose something different in negotiations,” he said.
At the same time, he cautioned if changes are not made and something new negotiated and the community remains under the Indian Act, eventually the status will go away because of the provision of the Indian Act which specifies how someone is considered status.
“My granddaughter is non-status,” he pointed out.
Councillor Meness was challenged in a question about his history of not listening to the people. He was told he was part of council which signed an agreement in 2016 which the community of Pikwakanagan was against. There were 179 members who signed a petition but there was no action taken, he was told.
“You have to look at the pros and cons and bring all the issues in the forefront, which I have every intention of doing,” he replied.
Coun. Meness invited people to go to his website, Jimmeness.com, for more information on his platform.
As a former chief, Mr. Sarazin said he is running for council because he believes in Pikwakanagan and the people of Pikwakanagan, both on and off reserve.
“All our voices deserve to be heard and respected,” he said.
“The community has had no say in our future in my opinion.”
The community is not happy and there have been no community meetings in the last three years even though this has been requested repeatedly, he pointed out.
“I believe the chief and council are elected to serve the membership,” he said. “The chief and council need to take direction from the people.”
The people need to be able to tell chief and council what they want them to do, he added. The council is deeply divided, he added.
The community asked for a meeting and when the meeting was called, the AOO was invited, he said.
“That is not what the community wanted,” he stressed.
There needs to be more consultation with the community and not just meetings where the community is talked to with presentations, he said.
Mr. Sarazin said the AOO lawyer said Pikwakanagan suffered from being an “intellectual ghetto” and he found this offensive.
“What that means is, a bunch of dummies,” he said.
He questioned who else has that opinion.
If elected chief, he will ask for community input and respect the voice of the people. He will represent the voice of the people as chief, he promised.
This has not always been the case with the current chief, he noted. He said while meetings were held and there was a clear direction given to chief and council, they did not listen.
“The members had to resort to petitions,” he said.
The chief did not respond to the issue in the petition and a second petition was signed by 300 members in September, but no action was taken.
“I will listen to you and listen to your voice,” Mr. Sarazin said.
The community is calling for a change and looking for someone who will listen, he said.
Mr. Sarazin pointed out he is university educated and has experience both as a former chief, in the land claim and as a traditional knowledge holder.
“There has been a lot of turmoil at the council table, mostly related to council’s relationship with AOO,” he said.
Mr. Sarazin stressed he wanted to make clear he wants the land claim to continue and this is a priority to have a successful treaty for future generations. However, it all must be done with consultation within the community.
“There are community issues which must be addressed,” he said, pointing to the opioid crisis and housing issues as examples.
When it was time for questions, a member pointed out the Grandmothers group has cost Pikwakanagan thousands of dollars in court and legal fees. She said this was only creating division with Algonquins in Quebec and others as well. She asked about his involvement with the group and if he was the spokesperson.
“I don’t know what is going on with the Grandmothers,” Mr. Sarazin said.
He said he only knows what he has heard from others in the community and on council.
“I have not seen a document about the Grandmothers,” he repeated.
However, this is an outstanding issue, he noted and needs to be resolved. He promised if elected he would show political leadership to deal with the issue.
Mr. Sarazin was asked if a “small vocal membership” should be ruling in Pikwakanagan and should council listen to them instead of the membership in the majority.
He replied the majority of people voted ‘no’ to the AIP because there were provisions in it they did not agree with.
When asked about the purchase of land where there was no community consultation, Mr. Sarazin said people should be consulted with any land purchased. He said his understanding was council has been given a mandate to expand the lands base. “There should be community meetings,” he stressed.
Mr. Sarazin has a website with more information at gregorysarazin.com.
Debbi Christinck is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE EGANVILLE LEADER. The LJI is a federally funded program. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.