Saskatchewan’s most prominent First Nations leader should have been disqualified from running in the last election, say fellow chiefs, a rival candidate and others.
CBC News has obtained documents outlining Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron’s criminal record, which includes a 1993 conviction for break and enter and theft.
The FSIN represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan. FSIN election rules prohibit candidates with a conviction of fraud or theft from running for office. In a series of interviews, these critics say it’s now clear Cameron should not have been on the ballot in the 2021 election, which he won.
The FSIN’s former chief electoral officer says she tried to raise the issue two weeks before the vote, but was silenced.
Cameron’s criminal record is the latest, but not the only, controversy raging over that 2021 election. CBC News has also examined internal emails, affidavits, lawsuits and other materials alleging vote tampering, conflicts of interest and other impropriety in the races to elect Cameron and four FSIN vice-chiefs.
“It was corrupt,” said former Flying Dust First Nation chief Bob Merasty, who finished second to Cameron.
“That election was controlled by…certain people to make sure they could maintain their jobs, their salaries.”
Cadmus Delorme, who was chair of the FSIN’s Indigenous Governance Commission, said he was already troubled by the other election irregularities. After CBC News described Cameron’s criminal record to him this week, Delorme said he’s more concerned than ever.
“Are you asking me, ‘Is Chief Bobby the chief?’ Well, you know what? The FSIN has moved forward, but was good governance followed? It was not,” said Delorme, the former chief of Cowessess First Nation.
Details contained in lawsuit
Much of this information — including Cameron’s criminal record — is only surfacing because of a lawsuit filed by Cameron and other FSIN officials against former chief electoral officer, Myrna O’Soup-Bushie.
“Following the election, Myrna was still bound by confidentiality, right? When they sued her, that changed the equation,” said O’Soup-Bushie’s lawyer, Orlagh O’Kelly.
The lawsuit against O’Soup-Bushie was filed by the FSIN and its former CEO, Dawn Walker. It alleges O’Soup-Bushie breached her contract and defamed them by sending letters and speaking to chiefs and others about alleged election irregularities.
It states O’Soup-Bushie spread rumours “knowing that they were false, or with careless disregard as to whether they were true or not.”
Neither Cameron nor Walker responded to multiple interview requests sent by email, text and phone.
Last month, O’Soup-Bushie filed her 16-page statement of defence at Court of King’s Bench in Saskatoon. In it, O’Soup-Boushie outlines how she learned of Cameron’s previous criminal convictions.
O’Soup-Bushie was named to a three-member “credential committee” assigned to determine candidates’ eligibility in the fall of 2021.
There were immediately concerns raised over conflict of interest because one of the committee members used to work for Cameron, according to the lawsuit. Those concerns “were not answered,” according to the statement.
The committee disqualified four candidates because of their criminal records, including one of Cameron’s rivals, O’Soup-Bushie said.
O’Soup-Bushie said Cameron did submit documentation of his convictions in his nomination package, but she deferred to the lawyer on the committee to examine the criminal record checks.
“Unbeknownst to O’Soup[-Bushie] that day, Cameron had a criminal record for theft,” read the statement.
With two weeks still to go before the vote, some of the four candidates appealed their own disqualifications. Another lawyer was brought in to re-examine the applications. That’s when O’Soup-Bushie realized Cameron should also be disqualified.
“He told me that the legal counsel for the declaration date made an error. And he said Bobby Cameron should not have made the cut,” O’Soup-Bushie said in an interview.
“So it was at that point that I said, ‘We’re still two weeks away from the election. Can I go back and fix it? I’m the electoral officer. I should be able to fix that.’ “
O’Soup-Bushie said she was told to “just let it stand.” She said she felt bound by her confidentiality agreement and dropped the matter.
The disqualified candidates lost their appeals. Cameron and other incumbents were all victorious.
Oath of office
Cameron and the four vice-chiefs were sworn in at the FSIN offices in Saskatoon on Nov. 2, 2021. Following a song from the drum group, an elder was pushed in her wheelchair to the front of the room to say a prayer and administer the oaths.
“I, Bobby Cameron, do declare and testify that I am, according to the laws of the FSIN, qualified to be elected as a member of the FSIN executive,” Cameron said, holding an eagle feather.
“I will not do anything that would disqualify me from holding this office. If I should fail to meet this undertaking, I hereby forfeit any benefits to which I may otherwise be entitled.”
Cameron signed the oath and was then wrapped in a blanket by supporters.
According to the FSIN Election Act, candidates are allowed to run if their convictions are more than five years old.
However, there is no expiry date on three specific types of crime.
“A person shall be ineligible as a candidate for an executive position if … he/she has been convicted of fraud, theft or a breach of trust,” states Section 44 (b) of the Act.
The actual document listing Cameron’s 1993 convictions for break and enter and theft is not included in the lawsuit, but CBC News obtained it through other sources.
“CAMERON, ROBERT KEITH. 1993-03-31. BE & THEFT. NORTH BATTLEFORD,” states the form.
According to the sheet, Cameron was sentenced to 25 hours of community service, unspecified restitution and six months of probation. All of these details were confirmed by phone last week by a staff member at the North Battleford provincial courthouse.
‘Everyone should be treated fairly’
O’Soup-Bushie, Merasty and others agree Cameron’s non-violent, decades-old conviction might be seen as a minor offence. However, they said the rules are clear on theft convictions, and Cameron is the only candidate apparently granted leniency.
Chiefs who voted in the election say they’re outraged to hear of Cameron’s criminal record.
“Oh my. I had no idea,” said Zagime Anishinabek First Nation Chief Lynn Acoose. “Everyone should be treated fairly. The rules should be applied equally to everyone. It’s difficult to engender trust in the organization if the rules were applied unevenly.”
Delorme said he asked O’Soup-Bushie for a debrief following the election.
Delorme said he was preoccupied in his own community’s efforts to identify remains found in 751 unmarked graves that summer. But he said he was concerned enough about the apparent election conflicts of interest and electronic voting irregularities that he brought them to the commission. No action was taken, but Delorme said he was not aware of Cameron’s criminal record at that time.
Delorme said he has great respect for O’Soup-Bushie. He said she had no choice but to defend herself after the FSIN and Walker sued her.
“I do believe that Miss O’Soup should be treated with more respect and fairness. She is neutral. She is an electoral officer,” he said.
Merasty said if the election was fair, Cameron would have been barred from running and Merasty would be chief. When asked if he’s considering any legal or political action, Merasty said he’s considering all options.
He said he witnessed a host of other campaign violations.
He said incumbents are given access to voter lists, travel budgets, vehicles and other perks denied to other candidates. Incumbents ran for chief and three of four vice-chief spots. They were all victorious.
Merasty said he is also saddened that the FSIN Senate, composed of veterans, elders and former leaders, has been completely sidelined by Cameron and the executive. Senators sent a letter to the FSIN interim leadership on the eve of the 2021 election demanding it be suspended until an investigation could take place.
“If we must remind you, the Senate must be respected and is a crucial part of the vetting and governance process of the FSIN,” stated the letter sent just days before the vote and obtained by CBC News.
The vote went ahead as scheduled.
Two of the vice-chief positions are up for election next month. The election for chief and the other two vice-chief spots is scheduled for the fall of 2024.
Merasty said the FSIN has strayed from the original vision of John B. Tootoosis and other founders of the 77-year-old organization.
“I ran in 2021 thinking I could change things. I ran based on our traditional principles of honesty and integrity and respect, but those have nothing to do with the FSIN anymore,” Merasty said.
“I think people are getting tired of what’s going on. That cannot continue. I think we have to come together and just say it’s time to make that change. It’s time to go back to what FSIN was about.”