Will indigenous voters be a force in Canada’s next election?


First Nations people don’t have a long history of voting in Canada, because they only got the vote in 1960. That was the year the federal government gave them the right.

Before 1960, indigenous people who wanted to vote had to surrender their treaty rights and renounce their status under the Indian Act.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It’s just another example of Canada’s long, shitty history of mistreating Indians.

Given that history, it’s not surprising 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 perception that the political system is rigged against them, so why bother voting?

Not everybody feels that way. 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, a lot of Sask ridings will be in play this fall.

Indigenous people make up 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,” he says.

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 put planks in their platforms 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,” he says.

Then again, policy isn’t the only thing people vote on, 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. Voters compare party leaders and support the one they like best.

And 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 with First Nations people,” he says.

But in Saskatoon West, he adds, the Liberals are fielding a star candidate in Lisa Abbott — a high-profile First Nations lawyer who’s done 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?

Moving The Goal Lines

Before First Nations voters head to the polls in October they’ll need  they familiarize themselves with the Harper Conservatives’ stupid and evil new ID requirements.

The Conservatives changed the rules for voting under the ultra-Orwellian-named Fair Elections Act.

So what’s different?

First, 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 electionscanada.ca for details.)

To help First Nations voters figure out the cockeyed new system, Elections Canada has budgeted $1 million and contracted the Assembly of First Nations to reach out to 634 bands across Canada.

Even with an education campaign, University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane expects the ID provision to fuck up 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,” says McGrane.

“Arguably” one could say that. Because “arguably” it sure as shit is voter suppression. But political scientists are obliged to phrase things more reasonably than alternative newspaper writers and editors.

Let’s hear from McGrane again.

“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.”

Golly, wonder why Harper’s Conservatives would want to stifle the First Nations vote. Who wouldn’t love a government that makes it harder for Indians to vote? /Gregory Beatty and Stephen Whitworth

Obligation & Resignation

Two actual Indians weigh in on the 2015 federal election

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’ll 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