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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Hear Us Roar

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday November 12, 05:20 pm
The aboriginal vote in the latest election represents a political sea change

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that politicians, throughout Canadian history, haven't exactly made aboriginal issues a priority — which, understandably but also sadly, shows why First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have not generally voted in large numbers. In 2011, for example, aboriginal voter turnout in Canada was just 44 per cent.

And really: When it seems like nobody cares about your issues, who can blame you for checking out of the vote?

But the recent federal election was an absolute sea change, as they say, as on Oct. 19th, aboriginal Canadians turned out to vote in record numbers — some communities saw a voter increase of up to 270 percent. Even better? A record 10 aboriginal MPs were elected. (Yeah, 10 out of 338 still doesn’t reflect well on the country as a whole, but we’re trying to look at the positive, small steps here.)

Priscilla Settee, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, says removing now-former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the motivations behind the wave of aboriginal voters.

“I think that Harper [disenfranchising First Nations people] partly motivated voters to dump the Conservatives,” says Settee. “Harper couldn't have taken the country down a worse path than what he did in these last years. He was ruthless; he really created great divisions.”

The spike in aboriginal votes happened despite the introduction of the Fair Elections Act, a bill passed by the Harper government which made it harder for people to vote without approved identification. It was opposed by both the NDP and Liberals, and a ton of other people who pointed out that it caused the most problems for those with the least personal resources.

But grassroots initiatives like Rock the Indigenous Vote provided information and support for those unfamiliar with the voting process, as well as a vast social media presence. Settee herself volunteered at one of the polling centres, ensuring people weren't turned away — a problem which, she says, “happened a lot in past elections.”

And then, the sea change: Polling stations in many aboriginal communities in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan ran out of ballots. They either used photocopies or waited for more to be brought in.

“It's reflective of practices in our communities by the [former] federal government, generally,” says Settee. “Running out of resources — it's just another blatant indicator of how people generally don't care. It was to their benefit for them not to have enough ballots.”

The Harper government had an extensive history of shrugging off aboriginal issues: From inhumane conditions in many First Nations communities, to refusing a national inquiry of murdered and missing women, to Harper himself skipping the Idle No More movement in order to play with some panda bears. (Yup, just Google it.)

But aboriginal voices have now been heard forcefully in the voting process — which, hopefully, is the first step in finally making change for the better.

“I think it's a first step in awareness about democracy and citizenship, but people shouldn't make the mistake of thinking, 'Okay, we did our job.' It's about a lot more than putting the X on the ballot. It's about what we need to do to improve our socio-economic issues,” says Settee.

Settee says she's cautiously optimistic about the new government, but is far from expecting major structural change.

“It will be a more benign government under the Liberals, but we don't expect to see any significant structural change. They're still part of the same system of privilege and corporate domination,” she says.

Winona Wheeler, another associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, agrees that Harper's dismissal of aboriginal issues was a major catalyst for change.

“Harper didn't take us seriously. In this day and age, you can't do that anymore,” says Wheeler. “You can't ignore a segment of the population because you're not interested in their issues. Bill C-51 [the anti-terror bill] was a slap in the face — not just for indigenous people but all Canadians. So it was an opportunity for us to play on his field. He created these issues. He made his own bed.”

Out of more than 50 candidates, a record 10 aboriginal MPs were elected on Oct. 19th, representing our Canadian demographics more fairly.

“They're going to bring understanding and priorities to the table in a way that we haven't seen before. I think it will increase the sense that we are in this together, and will go a long way in helping Canadians better understand each other,” says Wheeler. “That's indicative of a shift in attitude.”

While a shift in attitude is discernible, whether it will be reflected in the new government as a whole is another story. Trudeau has promised to call an inquiry for missing and murdered aboriginal women, as well as to honour treaties. But the Liberals don't exactly have the best track record on aboriginal issues.

“The Liberals, like the Conservatives, have historically not done all that well when it comes to aboriginal issues,” says Wheeler. “I think there's more of an opportunity with Trudeau [than Harper] for Canadians to become more aware of our historical relations. It's hard to tell what he's going to do, but the promises he made during his election campaign were a lot better than the promises the Conservatives made. So you can't go anywhere but up. You can't get much worse than Harper.”

Whether the increased aboriginal vote truly will create a sea of change remains to be seen, but the increased numbers certainly give more weight to their issues.

“I hope the government and policy-makers respect the aboriginal electorate and understand that we do have areas of influence and can throw our weight behind change as we see it and want it. I don't think they've give us the consideration in the past because we haven't had the numbers out there. Now we do. Now we have a voice,” says Wheeler.

With the government finally forced to make aboriginal issues more of a priority, it’s the young generation, not the government, says Settee, that will continue to propel this change.

“I don't have a lot of faith in the Liberals. I think what Trudeau might do is move us back to how things were under the [Chrétien] Liberals. There were some devastating things that happened under the Conservatives that we're hoping the Liberals may be able to turn around,” says Settee. “I think what we need to do is help be part of the solution, particularly with the younger generations. They need to be in solidarity with indigenous people, because we can't do it alone. We need allies.”

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