Application dismissed. The applicant did not discharge her burden to satisfactorily prove that the First Nations Election Act was contravened during a First Nation’s Chief and Band Council election.
Michelle Good has appealed all of the last three elections of the Red Pheasant First Nation [RPFN], but this is the first appeal she has applied for under the First Nations Elections Act [FNEA]. She is a practicing lawyer in British Columbia, and is a band member of the RPFN. On November 5, 2015, the RPFN Band Council signed a Band Council Resolution [BCR] in favour of opting into the FNEA, a statutory regime that legislates a process for First Nations to elect their Band Council members. After receiving the BCR, the Minister added the RPFN to the FNEA Schedule. An election followed on March 18, 2016. After the election results became known, Good filed an application under s 30 of the FNEA in the Federal Court to review the election. She went on to allege that the election and the election process contravened numerous sections of the FNEA. Good has applied for nine different declarations and an order that a new election be called as her only relief.
An election to be set aside requires meeting a statutory test under ss 31 and 35(1) of the FNEA. The two-part test requires the Applicant to establish that a provision was contravened and that the contravention likely affected the election result. Contraventions unlikely to have affected the result of the election will not trigger overturning the election. The requisite standard of proof for establishing this test is the balance of probabilities. In interpreting the FNEA, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal noted that the presumption of regularity is reflected in the onus and evidentiary burden imposed on an applicant to demonstrate that a contravention has occurred that likely affected the result of an election. Once an applicant establishes a prima facie case, the burden switches to the respondent to refute it. The type of contravention is important and relevant as not every contravention will justify triggering the overturning of the election. This Court retains discretion on overturning elections, even in situations involving fraud or other forms of corruptions.
Evidence in a judicial review proceeding is dealt with by the Court through examination of the affidavits before it. In this matter, the record before the Court was complicated by numerous affidavits which included redacted affidavits, supplementary affidavits, and late filed affidavits. Many of the affidavits contain hearsay evidence, argument, and irrelevant or inflammatory comments. The Court found this unacceptable, inappropriate, and not a good use of judicial resources. Not only is such a record unfair to the Judge, but it is also unfair to the Respondents as the Respondents cannot know exactly what the relevant allegation is, or the specific evidence that supports the allegation.
A main allegation in many of the affidavits revolved around cash being given to band members by the Chief and Council at the time of the election and with respect to the appeal. Money given to assist band members in need has been the tradition for many years, and evidence was led by both parties to the effect that the RPFN is not a wealthy First Nation. Many of its members are in need of assistance for food, gas, and other necessities. People text or solicit the Chief and Council for cash and if the requests are deemed as legitimate, typically money will be given from their own pockets or accounts, and on occasion from a band account. This practice does not stop during election campaigning. The Court had to determine in each situation whether the contributions by the individuals were philanthropic, or for the purposes of vote purchasing. The Respondents provided a methodical refutation to these allegations.
There were also allegations of unlawful control of enough blank ballots to control the outcome of the election. The allegations had reasonable explanations given by the Respondents and the Court preferred their evidence. It is not a violation of the FNEA or any common-law principles to be asked to join a slate of candidates. This political maneuvering would appear to be what occurs in many elections, and is a recognized part of the political process. It was also alleged that fraud occurred from the overbroad use of Form 5D (Form to Request a Mail-in Ballot) and Form 8C (Declaration of Person Delivering a Mail-in Ballot Package) which allowed illegally obtained ballot forms to be placed in the ballot box, therefore controlling the outcome of the election. Walking in ballots and completing the 8C Form in itself is not evidence of fraud, especially given that most of the band members live off reserve. Good also alleged that people were given the paper with the slate of candidates that they were to vote for, but there was no evidence of this that was acceptable to the Court. There is no prohibition against entering a polling station with a slip of paper in and of itself.
The substantive allegation surrounding vote buying was supported by excerpted Facebook posts. This is not reliable evidence, as it is inherently suspect. An individual can post on Facebook that they have sold their vote, and another individual can “corroborate” a potentially false narrative without any underlying substrata of truth to the event. While it has been held that Facebook posts can result in legal action, such as in the employment context, it is highly distinguishable from individuals attempting to “set-up” others on social media platforms to establish the corrupt nature of elections on the RPFN. Good was not present at the actual election and her only knowledge was garnished from following social media. There was also alleged vote-buying at the Ramada Inn in the hospitality room put on by the Chief. Having a “come and go” hospitality room is not out of the ordinary for candidates in any and all political forums, and it is not found on these facts that the hospitality room or the events that occurred within comprised an inducement to buy a vote.
The remaining evidence does not support a contravention of the FNEA, and in the alternative, it does not affect the results of the election. There were several other affidavits that were not specifically addressed as that evidence was related to issues not relevant or not before the Court. The Court commented that this election was a complex web of intrigue and that the band is clearly divided in its loyalty and this toxic environment can never be in the best interests of the band.