Grand chief Victor Bonspille personally instructed PlanIT to delay the upcoming Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) by-election until further notice, according to the chief electoral officer.
The shocking disruption came last Saturday, September 17, smack in the middle of an advance poll that was shuttered after votes had already been cast.
Bonspille denied responsibility for the decision, claiming it was the appeal board that opted to have PlanIT Consulting and Communications – the firm contracted to manage the electoral process – put the brakes on a by-election that included his political rival, former grand chief Serge Otsi Simon, as a candidate.
“I have nothing to do with the by-election. That’s the appeals committee, so I don’t really have a comment on any of that,” Bonspille told The Eastern Door.
“Elected officials are supposed to stay away from that,” Bonspille added.
Yet, according to Maris Jacobs of PlanIT, chief electoral officer of the by-election, the appeal board does not have the authority to delay an election. She said she advised the board’s members of this limitation when they called her Saturday morning with concerns about the Custom Electoral Code that governs Kanesatake elections.
“I did tell them that the appeal board is not responsible for delaying elections. Their responsibility is really just to take in appeals and then make decisions based on appeals submitted,” said Jacobs.
“I directed them to contact the grand chief to take up those concerns with him or the MCK, as we couldn’t make any decisions at that point on delays or anything outside of the appeals, so they did…. The next call we received was from the grand chief, who directed us that the process would be delayed until further notice.”
According to Jacobs, there is nothing in the electoral code about delays, so PlanIT deferred to Bonspille because he is the one who signed the contract with the firm.
“We were just taking direction from the grand chief, who we were working with from the beginning,” she said.
When The Eastern Door challenged Bonspille’s version of events by invoking what Jacobs had said, the grand chief replied, “I don’t know about that,” before criticizing past coverage and declining to answer further questions on the topic.
While the September 24 by-election is officially delayed rather than cancelled, there is currently no date that it is set to resume, leaving its future in doubt.
PlanIT is awaiting further instruction from MCK, according to Jacobs. The firm has requested a resolution from Council to bring clarity to the situation and has been assured an update from the entire Council will come soon, Jacobs said.
However, outraged chiefs were unable to add the delay of the by-election to the agenda of their Tuesday meeting on September 20, with Bonspille citing a longstanding agreement to add items by the preceding Friday.
When chiefs objected that the delay was announced on Saturday and refused to approve the agenda, Bonspille abruptly announced the session would be cancelled before engaging in another few minutes of disagreement during which he would not yield to the concerns of his colleagues.
This version of events was confirmed by an audio recording made public by chief Brant Etienne this week.
“We have to deal with this,” said Etienne on the recording. “It’s new business that needs to be dealt with asap.”
“It’s not on the agenda, sorry,” replied Bonspille.
After some back and forth, Bonspille said, “You guys want to start like this? I’m going to cancel this meeting… If that’s the way you’re going to act, that’s how it’s going to be.”
Despite three chiefs questioning why an exception could not be made for the issue given its urgency, Bonspille was unmoved and accused the elected chiefs of interfering.
“Why do you want to get involved with the election?” Bonspille asked. “… Now you’re meddling in an election. You want to meddle in an election after decisions were made.”
On September 22, Etienne, along with chiefs John Canatonquin, Denise David, and Amy Beauvais – a majority of Council – released a signed statement registering their opposition to the postponement.
“We have reached out to multiple lawyers, and the opinions have been unanimous, the appeal board and grand chief’s interference in the by-election is illegal,” the statement reads.
The chiefs also vowed in the letter to “work to prevent any further interference.”
Beauvais suggested to The Eastern Door that Bonspille may not understand his role as a spokesperson for the collective, instead seeing himself as its ultimate decision maker.
“The decision that was made was not open to the possibility of having a consensus. It was made unilaterally,” Beauvais said.
“I have mentioned this on several occasions, that I believe we’ve entered into a dictatorship.”
She pointed out that the election is already long overdue according to Kanesatake’s own rules.
The electoral code dictates that when a Council seat is vacated more than a year before the next election, Council must either obtain authorization from the community at a public meeting to finish the mandate shorthanded or hold a by-election. A call for nominations is to be issued within four weeks, with the by-election itself to be held within eight weeks of the nomination.
The seat has been empty since Teiawenniserate Jeremy Tomlinson vacated it prior to February 21, more than seven months ago.
Concerns were raised last week that the composition of the appeal board spelled trouble for Simon; a majority of core members had openly agreed with comments hostile to his candidacy.
No member of the appeal board responded to a request for comment. The board includes Mary Hannaburg, Gabrielle Lamouche, and Eugene Nicholas as core members and Barry Bonspille and Shelly Simon as alternates.
The appeal board’s first step was supposed to be to consider appeals to decisions by the chief electoral officer relating to the eligibility of candidates in response to contestations submitted by community members.
During that phase of the election process, only one candidate received objections – Simon. All 11 objections submitted by Kanehsata’kehró:non against him were rejected by the chief electoral officer, who determined that they did not demonstrate that he was ineligible to run.
Many of the contestations included praise for Bonspille, but the names of complainants were redacted in the versions seen by The Eastern Door.
Jacobs confirmed that the appeal board received at least one appeal, but she would not say how many or against whom.
Given the composition of the board, Simon feared the appeal board would capitalize on the opportunity to rule against him – all appeal board decisions relating to appeals are considered final.
He believes the decision to put the by-election on ice was made with him in mind.
“I’m convinced, and a lot here are convinced, it was to keep me off that Council,” said Simon.
He is critical of PlanIT’s handling of the instruction to delay, citing the firm’s explanation that the electoral code did not specify how delays should be handled.
“Look, unless it specifically says they have that authority, they do not have that authority,” he said.
Simon said that if the election was derailed by the appeal board and grand chief because of opposition to him that it “borders on the criminal.” He added, however, that the community is the ultimate victim of the decision.
“They took the voice, they violated the rights of every Kanehsata’kehró:non here on their list, and I don’t think they should get away with it,” he said.
Simon has indicated he is looking into proceeding with a human rights complaint to address this situation. “I don’t need a lawyer to see the blatant rights violations of our right to free and fair elections,” he said.
He also raised the possibility of pursuing a petition under the First Nations Elections Act to remove Bonspille and his sister, chief Valerie Bonspille, from Council.
“All I wanted was a fair shot at running, but because of what (Bonspille and the appeal board) did – and like I said in one post – ‘now they have my full attention.’”
The by-election’s other two candidates, Lourena Montour and Shirley Bonspille – the grand chief’s sister – did not respond to requests for comment.
To Etienne, the situation is about more than the fate of any one candidate.
“I literally don’t give a flying – you know – if (Simon) is on the (ballot). I don’t care. That doesn’t matter,” Etienne said. “The thing is, they’re stopping a community member from being able to participate in the democratic process, and they’re stopping the rest of the community from being able to exercise their democratic right.”
According to Etienne, the election as scheduled, was slated to cost about $40,000. It is unknown what the financial result of postponement will be for Kanesatake.
“We’re not a rich community,” he said. “You know, if this ends up costing more, we’re going to have to decide on how to recoup those costs.”
Etienne emphasized his belief that the chaos around the by-election reflects a pattern of behaviour from the grand chief.
“Nobody expected such bad faith. We gave him the benefit of the doubt for over a year on all kinds of issues, and it’s always come back to bite us in the butt,” Etienne said.
“It’s insane,” he said. “It’s a banana republic.”
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.