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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Use Your Voice

Gregory Beatty
Published Thursday June 11, 05:27 pm
First Nations voters could play a huge role in the next federal election

First Nations people don’t have a long history of voting in Canada, because it was only in 1960 that they were granted the right to vote by the federal government. Before then, to qualify to vote they were required to surrender their treaty rights and renounce their status under the Indian Act.

Not surprisingly, indigenous voter turnout lags behind the rest of Canadian society. In the 2011 federal election, for example, Elections Canada measured voter turnout at 61 per cent. Among indigenous voters, though, it was 45 per cent.

Some of that discrepancy can be explained by the complicated relationship between First Nations and the Crown. Because First Nations regard themselves as sovereign entities, some indigenous people don’t recognize Ottawa as having any jurisdiction over them, so they don’t vote.

That’s a noble sentiment, but at this point in our history First Nations still have to work through Ottawa to achieve their long-term goals, and it seems vital that their voice and perspective be represented in government.

Other challenges to voter turnout are grounded in the generally substandard socio-economic conditions many indigenous people subsist in — and the likely perception that the political system is rigged against them, so why bother voting?

Not everybody feels that way, of course. In the run-up to October’s federal election, a Facebook group called Indigenous Votes Sask 2015 has sprung up. It describes itself as a provincial, non-partisan effort to mobilize the First Nations, Métis and Inuit vote in Saskatchewan, and so far it has 1700 “likes.”

Thanks to changes in Saskatchewan’s electoral boundaries that do away with the blended rural-urban ridings that benefited the Conservatives big-time (13 of 14 seats in 2011 with 56 per cent of the vote), and general fatigue with a worn-out Harper government, numerous ridings will be in play this fall.

Currently, indigenous people comprise roughly 17 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population, and they could be a factor in the election, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane. “That’s true for every riding — but especially Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill [River] in the north, where First Nations voters are close to a majority.”

Saskatoon West and Regina-Qu’Appelle also have sizeable First Nations populations. And while Battlefords-Lloydminster is a Conservative stronghold, it’s home to nine First Nations.

“The question, obviously, is whether First Nations people are going to vote,” says McGrane. “If they vote in low numbers, the impact will be minimal. But if they come out in higher numbers, they could [shake up] conventional wisdom when it comes to Saskatchewan politics.”

Certainly, there’s no shortage of frustration with Conservative government policies on a host of issues from the environment and resource extraction to poverty, crime, education and infrastructure investment on reserves, housing, missing and murdered indigenous women and more. So the motivation to vote would seem to be there.

If indigenous people do turn up at the polls, says McGrane, two parties stand to benefit. “Federally, there’s very little evidence First Nations people will be voting Conservative. In 2011, I suspect the NDP was quite popular. But this time around the interesting storyline will be whether First Nations people vote for the NDP or Liberals.”

To court First Nations voters, McGrane expects all parties — even the Conservatives — to have planks in their platform addressing First Nations concerns. “To the extent that people vote on policy, there should be some differences in the plans put forward, and First Nations people can look at them and see which one they agree with most.”

As important as policy can be, says McGrane, “it takes a lot of time and effort to read all the platforms, so people sometimes have shortcuts to voting.”

Leadership is probably the biggest shortcut, where voters compare party leaders and support the one they like best. At the riding level, a popular candidate can sometimes sway voters.

One strike against the Liberals in their pursuit of First Nations voters, says McGrane, is the party’s recent support of Harper’s draconian Anti-Terrorism Act. “That didn’t go over well in a lot of places, and that includes First Nations people.”

But in Saskatoon West, he adds, they’re fielding a star candidate in Lisa Abbott — a high-profile First Nations lawyer who’s done some advocacy work on the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women. And in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, all three parties have nominated indigenous candidates — incumbent Rob Clarke (Con), Lawrence Joseph (Lib) and Georgina Jolibois (NDP).

“With the last Provincial election, one of the highest turnouts of First Nations voters was in Cutknife-Turtleford where Bernadette Gopher was the NDP candidate,” says McGrane. “She didn’t win the seat, but she was able to mobilize the First Nations vote.”

If First Nations turn out again in October, demographics guarantee they will have an impact. The big question is, will they?

SIDEBAR: Big Hurdle

Before First Nations voters head to the polls in October, it’s crucial they familiarize themselves with the new ID requirements that the Harper Conservatives introduced under the ultra-Orwellian Fair Elections Act.

Vouching, where a neighbour or acquaintance can attest to a person’s identity before they vote, is no longer an option. The Elections Canada voter information card and Indian status card won’t do either. Instead, voters will be required to produce a piece of government-approved ID with their address on it. (See for details.)

To help First Nations voters transition to the new system, Elections Canada has budgeted $1 million and contracted the Assembly of First Nations to do outreach with 634 bands across Canada to inform them of the changes.

McGrane still expects the ID provision to have a negative impact on First Nations voter turnout. “I think it’s one of the more nefarious pieces of legislation the Harper government has brought in. Arguably, it’s akin to voter suppression,” he says.

“You could be living in a house with five or six other people, you might be moving in and out, have one foot on the reserve and one in the city — there’s all sorts of things that could make it difficult to have a piece of ID with an address on it.

“That’s just the reality of some people’s lives, and this new law doesn’t respect that. So that’s going to be a challenge for First Nations bands, voters and any political party trying to mobilize First Nations voters.”

SIDEBAR: Two Voices

As an indigenous person, I have ambiguous feelings about the upcoming election. I’ve voted in almost every election — reserve, civic, provincial, and federal — as an adult. But with each election, I feel my vote is less about endorsing or believing in the vision of any political party, and more about voting for who is going to do the least damage to indigenous communities over the next several years …though there are some pro-community politicians like Charlie Angus, Romeo Saganash or Niki Ashton that prevent me from being 100 per cent cynical of the process.
Elwood Jimmy, a Saskatchewan-born arts administrator now living in Toronto

My thoughts on the upcoming election? Anyone but Harper. Don’t vote Conservative, and don’t trust the Liberals. Look how they voted with the Conservatives on Bill C-51; they are the loyal opposition. The NDP make promises they know they will never have to keep. The Green Party is good, but their candidates are crackpots. Only crackpots think the system will change. We will always kowtow to the powers that be.
Sheila Stevenson, a Saskatchewan-based First Nations educator

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