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For first time, Canada's indigenous flex their electoral muscles in a big way

For decades, many of Canada's Aboriginals have viewed voting in federal elections as something foreign. But that changed this year, as a newly galvanized community made their voices heard.

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Tania Cameron lives in a Canadian electoral district where most Aboriginal reservations lack drinkable water. Its overcrowded schools and crumbling infrastructure offer a snapshot of social ills that pervade native life.

“We also have a number of missing and murdered indigenous women,” she says. “A lot of families don't know what ever happened to their loved one.”

But Kenora – her riding, or district, in north Ontario – also epitomizes a political awakening that swept the country in the run-up to Monday's election.

Until now, Aboriginals had cast as many as 20 percentage points fewer ballots than the general population since gaining the franchise 55 years ago. But that changed this week, as an Occupy-style movement, combined with crimes against the community that have shocked the nation, have pushed indigenous issues into the public consciousness.

Now, many Aboriginals are seeing political engagement as a path toward better conditions and opportunities for their communities. A turn-out-the-vote effort has tripled participation at some tribal reservations, while more indigenous members of Parliament have been elected than ever before.

“We've never seen this kind of engagement, in my lifetime anyway,” says Ms. Cameron, a councilor for her tribal community, or band as they are called in Canada. She spent the past six months coaxing fellow natives to vote.

Even so, like many others, Cameron is waiting to see whether the government will reverse centuries of mistrust and disappointment. “I'm going to hold them to account; I'm just going to watch and I'm going to be vocal.”

Treaty issues

The Aboriginal path to the ballot box was blazed in 2012, in the wake of a pair of issues touching on longstanding grievances.

In Parliament, the government of now-outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper had passed a law that limited environmental scrutiny for pipelines, including ones in Aboriginal territory.

At the same time, the local government of the Attawapiskat reserve, a remote reservation reachable only by plane, declared a state of emergency over wretched housing conditions as winter approached. Seniors and children had been getting by in tents, without water or electricity for years. But the crisis focused new national attention on the problem there as well as at other reserves across Canada, almost 40 percent of which lack clean drinking water.

According to most band councils, Canada has violated centuries-old land treaties by removing safeguards for ancestral lands and failing to provide adequate living standards. Most of Canadian soil is treaty land: areas where the British monarchy signed agreements with local bands. The treaties gave the crown ownership of vast swathes of land in exchange for supplies, and guaranteed that the bands would retain sovereignty over their reserves.

For example, one treaty gave the monarchy control over some 120,000 square miles of the Prairies, and the Aboriginals involved received cattle, tools, and guaranteed self-rule of their several dozen reserves, most the size of small towns.

In late 2012, the pipeline law and housing crisis prompted a small protest organized over Facebook called Idle No More. The phrase quickly spread online, launching hundreds of Occupy-style spinoffs across the country.

Aboriginal protesters and supporters in the Idle No More movement block the Blue Water Bridge border crossing to the United States in Sarnia, Ontario, in January 2013. Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/AP/File

“The movement is really about trying to educate Canadians, I would say, to stop being idle on indigenous issues,” says Kiera Ladner, a prominent University of Manitoba researcher on indigenous governance. “We know Aboriginal people mean nothing to most Canadians.”

Violence against Aboriginals

The movement was further galvanized in August 2014, when a 15-year-old girl's body was found in a bag at the bottom of a river in downtown Winnipeg. Three months later and just miles away, a 16-year-old narrowly escaped death after being attacked twice and tossed into a river.

The two cases brought to light violence against Aboriginal women that stretched back three decades. According to national figures, 1,186 Aboriginal women have been reported as missing or murdered during that span, but prosecutions have been rare.

"We have hundreds of missing and murdered people, and nobody [cares],” says Daniel Printup, a housing director of Wabano, a bustling Aboriginal social-service center in Ottawa. “You lose a certain kind of humanity, not caring for people.”

The cases prompted public outcry, and both opposition parties pledged to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Politicians were further put under pressure in June, when a Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Canada had attempted “cultural genocide” against Aboriginal communities from the 1870s until 1996. During that span, the government took 150,000 children from their families to live in church-run dormitories known as “residential schools.” Many children never saw their parents again, were beaten for speaking their native languages, and were sometimes sexually abused.

After interviewing 7,000 survivors, an independent commission issued 94 recommendations for the government, from protecting dying languages to mandating more inclusion of Aboriginal history in schools. During the election, each party pledged to implement parts of the recommendations.

Mobilization

While the spotlight on multiple crises was energizing for many in Canada's Aboriginal communities, some saw participating in a federal election as violating their own sovereignty.

“Some people think that it's very important to vote and have influence, for a government that listens,” says Ladner. “But there's also people that see this as a treaty issue and a nation issue. Some people see voting in a Canadian election the same as voting in an election in the US or France.”

But this year, many more saw this election as the moment to try to flex Aboriginal muscle on the federal stage.

Offshoots of Idle No More analyzed each party's platform on Aboriginal issues and organized campaigns to get Aboriginal people registered to vote. The head of the largest indigenous group — representing 900,000 First Nations people — decided to vote for the first time, and urged his constituents to follow suit.

In May, Cameron started a Facebook page encouraging people in her remote riding to vote. By summer, she was spending her evenings on video chat, teaching scores of volunteers in remote communities how to get their neighbors registered.

“We owe it to our elders that fought for us to have the right to vote,'” she says.

'That giant is awake'

Her work and others' paid off. As Canadians watched the Liberal party sweep the country Monday evening, Cameron's colleagues tallied a doubling and tripling of voter turnout at reserves across Kenora.

Officials have yet to tabulate data from individual polling stations, but Aboriginal-majority areas in the north of Manitoba and Saskatchewan saw a rise in voters by 18 percentage points and 36 percentage points respectively. At six reserves, officials had to photocopy blank ballots to meet demand.

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau receives a gift of sweetgrass and a miniature canoe from National Chief Perry Bellegarde after addressing the Assembly of First Nations congress in Montreal in July 2015. Ryan Remior/The Canadian Press/AP/File

And the indigenous presence within the halls of Parliament is larger now, too: Of the 338 members of Parliament elected, a record 10 are Aboriginal.

The morning after the vote, the grand chief for the province of Manitoba declared that native people were now a force to be reckoned with. “That giant is awake,” Derek Nepinak told reporters. “A Liberal majority government is going to have to deal with a giant, in the indigenous people of these lands.”

Hope and skepticism

Change was already in the air on election night, when Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau promised “a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples that respects rights and honors treaties.”

In addition to an inquiry, the Liberals have promised $2.6 billion to improve Aboriginal education. They pledged to end boil-water advisories on reserves within five years by investing in water facilities.

Those points resonate with Cameron, but she notes all three issues persisted under 13 years of Liberal rule a decade ago. “I'm a little hesitant to take them at their word,” she says.

Meanwhile, Ladner is much more skeptical that a new government will alleviate entrenched problems.

“It's not just about coming in and solving water issues on reserves. We may get a policy response, but will it transform the relationship between Aboriginals and Canadian society? I'm not sure. I have my doubts.”

But the government may not have a choice but to listen. Canada's Aboriginal population, currently 4.3 percent of the overall, is also its youngest and fastest growing. As of 2011, nearly half of the Aboriginal population was under the age of 24.

"I hope we'll see native issues looked at more,” says Abraham Kakegamick, an Ottawa retiree who was raised in a remote reserve in the Kenora district. Mr. Kakegamick has several friends who cast their vote for the first time in years on Monday.

"Politicians, they never seem to talk about us much," he says. "But maybe that's changing.”

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