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'They're doing whatever they want': Thessalon First Nation blasted for hijacking election appeal process

New leadership at band office goes rogue by blocking election appeal board from reviewing appeals from community members — a brazen violation of the First Nation's own election code
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Band members are demanding transparency from Thessalon First Nation after it blocked the election appeal board from overseeing the appeal process in last month’s elections for chief and council.  

Appeal board members were appointed by the previous chief and council 15 days prior to the Nov. 17 election in accordance with the First Nation’s custom election code to oversee appeals. “But that never happened,” appeal board member Gerry Clark told SooToday during a telephone interview Thursday. “They wouldn’t let us review them or look at them.” 

In an open letter addressed to Thessalon First Nation and its community members, the election appeal board stated that it had initially reached out to acting band manager Lesley Boulrice after failing to receive any appeals from band members following the elections. 

“Our inquiries were met with a cryptic email citing privacy concerns and a subsequent response stating that ‘the matter has been resolved’ without providing details of the resolution,” the board said in the letter.  

That’s when Clark took action by going to the band office in person, where he was informed by Boulrice that the appeal process had already been dealt with. 

“She told me she looked after them,” Clark told SooToday. “I said, ‘no, that’s not in our election code.’ There’s nowhere that states the band manager handles appeals, it’s the appeal committee — and I stressed that a few times,” he said.

Boulrice proceeded to inform Clark that Vaughn Johnston, the electoral officer responsible for overseeing Thessalon First Nation band elections since 2002, had given her the go-ahead to oversee the appeal process. 

But following a discussion between Clark and Johnston, it was determined that Boulrice essentially twisted the words of the longtime electoral officer. 

That’s when Johnston issued an open letter of his own, refuting claims made by the band manager that he was somehow responsible for Thessalon First Nation hijacking the appeal process — a move that was in clear violation of Section 7.2 of the community’s custom election code, which states that it’s up to the appeal board to supervise and administer all election appeals, and that the board holds office until all appeals are determined.   

In his Dec. 9 open letter, Johnston said Boulrice seemed “determined not to follow this section of the code, although I recommended otherwise.”

Johnston added that he was contacted by a band member whose appeal was denied by Carol Bobiwash, who was recently hired by the First Nation to oversee the appeal process. The band member told Johnston their election appeal was denied based on his final report. 

In a Dec. 13 letter from chief and council posted to Thessalon First Nation Health Centre’s Facebook page, chief and council advised members that Bobiwash was hired on a “short-term consult” to “facilitate the electoral appeals process in accordance with the First Nation’s custom election code.”

“I never addressed this specific appeal in my final report, so I am wondering how my report can be quoted as the reason for the dismissal of this appeal?” Johnston wrote. 

Speaking with SooToday Thursday, Johnston said his responsibility lies solely in delivering the election, and has nothing to do with the appeal process. 

“They wanted to appoint their own committee,” Johnston said plainly. “They talked to me about it on the telephone — I just basically said, like I said in my letter, I recommend that you follow the code. But it’s up to you. It’s your decision, you know?” 

Johnston felt compelled to issue the open letter after receiving calls from band members whose appeals were denied, citing his final report as justification for those denials. He added that “it seemed like council wanted to shift the responsibility onto me.”

“I wasn’t going to let them shift the blame onto me when it was them who made those decisions,” Johnston said. 

Boulrice, Bobiwash and Thessalon First Nation Chief Joseph Wabigwan did not respond to interview requests from SooToday

A band member, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal from Thessalon First Nation, was one of those who reached out to Johnston after their appeal was denied.

The individual told SooToday that a family member had warned them previously that all election appeals “were going to get rejected anyhow” due to the band putting its own person in place in order to handle them. 

“They’re doing whatever they want,” the band member said about the new-look leadership at the band office. 

Joseph Wabigwan was elected chief of his community following the Nov. 17 election, defeating former chief Edward Boulrice by a margin of 64 votes in a four-way race to lead the small First Nation east of Sault Ste. Marie. 

Lisa Boulrice, Roxanne Boulrice, Mary Ann Giguere, Robert Simon Sr. and Robert Simon Jr. were all elected to seats on council. Giguere was the lone member of the previous chief and council to retain her seat at the leadership table.

But the takeover of the election appeal process by the new leadership and administration has members of the appeal board sounding the alarm in hopes that Thessalon First Nation will be publicly shamed into following its own rules.  

“I feel like I have the right to fulfill my duties, but it’s kind of disheartening when we’re supposed to be about transparency and building more relationships in our community,” said appeal board member Levi Laundrie. “It’s sad to see they’re not allowing me to do my job.” 

Appeal board members said they're hopeful the people in the band office responsible for usurping the appeal process will reverse course after media outlets bring the matter to light. But they're unsure of what comes next if that doesn't happen. 

“I don’t know what can be done, other than hiring a lawyer. That would be one option,” Clark said.    

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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie
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