THE FIRST NATIONS, or native Indians, of Canada have had full voting rights since 1960, but until very recently many of their leaders used their influence to dissuade their people from going to the polls. Now that may be about to change.
“The view was that it’s not our government,” says Jean Guy Whiteduck, who has been chief for 30 of the past 40 years of Kitigan Zibi reserve north of Ottawa, home to a band (sub-division) of the Algonquin people. Such purism reflects the idea that the 850,000 members of Canada’s First Nations, with their 617 bands, have a sovereignty of their own and must deal directly with the monarch who reigns over Canada as well as Britain or her representatives.
Yet that hard line is softening ahead of the country’s general election on October 19th. Although residents of Kitigan Zibi still do not want electoral posters on the reserve (they removed some from the local highway), a surprising number have told Chief Whiteduck that they now intend to vote. He in turn has shifted to a more neutral stance—telling them “it’s your choice to make”—and he is debating the possibility of casting a ballot himself.
Canada’s aboriginal people are classified as First Nations, Inuit (the indigenous people of the Arctic) or Métis, who are of mixed descent. What they share is deep frustration with the perceived indifference of the federal government.
The list of complaints is long. The government barely responded to a damning inquiry into boarding schools where aboriginal children were abused; it refused to hold an inquiry into the cases of more than 1,000 aboriginal women who were murdered or went suspiciously missing since 1980; it underfunds health and education on reserves, which is a federal task; and it changes environmental and other laws without consulting First Nations.
“Since the Canadian government doesn’t respect us, we have to change it to one that will,” says Tyrone Souliere, a founder of Rally The First Nation Vote, a movement which helps people register to vote and learn about local candidates.
Ordinarily 1.4m aboriginal Canadians would have little electoral clout in a country of more than 35m people, except in a handful of ridings (electoral districts) in the north, where indigenous people exceed 70% of the population. Close to the American border, where most Canadians live, the percentage drops to single digits.
But the electoral race is tight. The latest forecasts give the ruling Conservatives a nine-seat lead over the Liberals, their traditional rivals, with 116 of the 338 places in the House of Commons. The centre-left New Democrats are tipped to take 114 seats. The Assembly of First Nations, an advocacy group, has produced a list of 51 ridings where the aboriginal vote could decide the winner, either because of a slim margin or a high aboriginal population.
For the first time in the assembly’s history, its national chief is urging his members to vote, and working with Elections Canada, a federal agency, to make sure people know how and where to do so. “It is vital that First Nation voices be heard in every way possible, including through the ballot box,” says Perry Bellegarde, the national chief (pictured), who did not vote in the previous election but now says he will.
Not all First Nations agree. The Mohawks of Kahnawake, a reserve near Montreal, remain adamantly opposed on the grounds that voting means ceding sovereignty and speeding assimilation. They point to the two-row wampum belt which they have sported since striking a treaty with the Dutch 400 years ago. The belt, made of shell beads, shows two parallel lines; Mohawks say this indicates that they agreed to stay in their canoes and the Dutch in their ships, without interfering with each other. Still, in at least two northern ridings, aboriginal candidates are running for all three of the main parties. A total of 54 are running across Canada (23 New Democrats, 18 Liberals, eight Greens, four Tories and a Libertarian).
Sensing a more open door, the opposition parties are wooing aboriginals. The Liberals would invest C$2.6 billion ($2 billion) in aboriginal education over four years, and the NDP pledges a swift inquiry into the ill-fated aboriginal women. The Conservatives have yet to make an offer.
More than any party’s promises, the call from First Nation leaders to vote could be the factor that pushes aboriginal participation above the previous level of around 40%. Add in the seductive idea that indigenous people may now be swing voters.
But as some recall, the last time the First Nations hoped to play a pivotal role in history, things did not end well. In 1812 they helped the British to fight the Americans to a draw. But as they read history, Britain broke its promise to assign them a vast homeland; instead they found themselves confined to reservations.