The by-election that has rankled the community for months may have finally come to an end, with former grand chief Serge Otsi Simon elected as the newest Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chief.
Simon’s 105 votes in the January 21 contest to replace Teiawenhniseráhte Tomlinson, who resigned nearly a year ago, is more than the other two candidates combined. Shirley Bonspille won 55 votes and Lourena Montour garnered 42. Three ballots were considered spoiled. The 205 votes represents about a 10 percent turnout, according to PlanIt Consulting and Communications, the firm tasked with managing the by-election.
“I felt kind of vindicated. I felt relieved,” said Simon. “My community’s not that far gone. I hate to use those words, but lately the way I’ve been seeing people act, it goes beyond reason.”
While Simon may be more accustomed to being grand chief, he claims he does not see a big difference between that and his new role.
“I’m looking forward to, as a Council chief, putting my word on the table. ‘This is my opinion, my experience,’ and it’s up to the rest of the council as a majority to determine what they will choose,” said Simon.
But while Simon is now a sitting MCK chief – even, by coincidence, back in his old office space, now curiously empty – a 30-day window to contest the election results is underway.
“I can’t predict what will come in or what won’t come in,” said PlanIt’s Maris Jacobs, the election’s chief electoral officer.
“It has to violate something in the electoral code that’s written out in the document that we followed,” said Jacobs. The objections could also contest the results on the basis of counting procedures or other complaints relating to the validity of the results.
Objections would first be evaluated by PlanIt, but decisions can be appealed to the appeal board. Short of legal action, the appeal board’s decisions on any appeals during the current contestation phase are considered final, and PlanIt does not anticipate a continued involvement in the process after ruling on any objections that could be filed.
While this phase ordinarily represents a routine process, objections against Simon’s candidacy played a pivotal role in the by-election saga, raising questions about what could happen next.
Simon was the subject of all 11 contestations filed by Kanehsata’kehró:non in the lead-up to the original by-election date of September 24. These were rejected by PlanIt. However, shortly before the election, the appeal board that would have been responsible for reviewing appeals asked that the by-election be suspended.
This is not within the scope of the appeal board’s authority, according to PlanIt, but after the appeal board consulted MCK grand chief Victor Bonspille, he called PlanIt and requested that the by-election be put on hold, which the consulting firm accepted.
A battle ensued that played out in Council and at ad-hoc community meetings in the weeks that followed. In the end, a band council resolution (BCR) from a quorum of MCK chiefs restarted the by-election after they convinced PlanIt of their legal authority to do so.
“I look back and I see what I had to go through just to go through what should have been a simple process,” said Simon. “I’m glad I stuck with it. Now I have the opportunity to show the community that my intentions have always been for the progress of our community, especially the kids.”
Despite the well-known enmity between Bonspille and Simon, an initial meeting on Monday passed without incident despite worries expressed by Simon that he would encounter serious resistance.
“It was, if not polite, civil,” said MCK chief Brant Etienne of the Monday meeting. “You could tell there was a little bit of trying to have a last word on stuff a bit. That was about it. Overall there hasn’t really been any interaction other than that since then.”
The weekly Council meeting scheduled for the next day was cancelled.
Etienne backed up claims by Simon that the distribution of portfolios has arisen as an issue, with Bonspille seeming to assign and redistribute them at his own discretion without consulting at least some of the chiefs being impacted.
The subject is expected to be broached at the next weekly meeting of Council.
“A lot of it comes down to portfolios because he tries to use that as a mechanism to try and punish or reward people and get control of stuff that he wants,” said Etienne.
Bonspille did not reply to an interview request for this article.
Despite the lack of confrontation, Etienne worries that there may not be a strong prospect of a reset in Council relations and procedures, which have been rancorous in recent months. However, he is hopeful the by-election is now behind them.
“I’m happy. It was a big shadow over everything,” he said. “The constant wonder if there’s going to be more interference and how the heck are we going to deal with this, what’s going to be the new problem thrown in front of us. It seems to have gone on without a hitch.”
Etienne noted the uncertainty regarding contestations, but he is pleased so far with how things have gone.
“The community’s had their voice. They’ve had their chance to have their say. Hopefully there isn’t more drama, and we’ll see,” he said.
It is unknown to what extent bickering over the status of the by-election may have contributed to a low voter turnout.
Community member Jasmin Gunn, who voted, questions the validity of the estimated number of eligible voters – over 2,000 – but agrees relatively few Kanehsata’kehró:non chose to participate.
“There was a very low turnout of voters, which could be attributed to a lack of confidence in the voting system entirely or the clumsy way that the election was ‘advertised’ and pushed to happen,” said Gunn.
“Once it was decided that it was going forward, I would rather my voice be heard with a vote than not cast a vote at all. Action is better than apathy. In this case it seems we continue to make the same mistakes,” she said, referring to indifference.
Jacobs stated a belief that the Custom Electoral Code that governs Kanesatake elections could be clearer in terms of laying out procedures and step-by-step actions.
“We did what we could with what we had, and I’ll leave it at that,” she said.
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.