Federal parties seek to connect with key First Nations voters
- Federal parties seek to connect with key First Nations voters
BY MICHAEL WOODS, POSTMEDIA NEWSAUGUST 1, 2013
THURSDAY: Spokeswoman Claudette Commanda addresses over 100 Aboriginal protestors gathered on Victoria Island on Thursday, July 25, 2013 to demand the government honour the residential school apology by releasing all documents related to residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation commission has been arguing for months that the feds have refused to release most relevant documents. In the past week, revelations about nutritional experiments performed by the government on kids in residential schools have come to light. Other revelations about children being electrocuted for science have also been reported.
Photograph by: Pat McGrath, Ottawa CitizenOTTAWA - The next federal election is two years away, but political parties are already jockeying for position with an increasingly important group of voters: Canada's indigenous population.
They're motivated by the increasing realization that indigenous voters have significant potential to be decisive in swing ridings, and by unprecedented political engagement among the young, growing aboriginal population in the form of the grassroots indigenous Idle No More movement.
There's also an increasing sense that First Nations are inextricably linked with Canada's economic fortunes, with many resource development projects planned for areas near aboriginal territory.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair's Canada-wide "listening tour" passed through northern Ontario this week, during which he met with First Nations leaders. On the weekend, Mulcair will meet with AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo in his home community in B.C.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau attended the Assembly of First Nations' annual meeting in Whitehorse last month. He didn't give a speech, but mingled with First Nations leaders and listened in on meetings.
"This is the first time in a long time . that I've seen predominant representatives from political parties going out to where the First Nations people are gathering," AFN Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy said.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, recently introduced legislation - focused on financial accountability and matrimonial property rights - that they say many First Nations people have been demanding. They are also developing new First Nations education legislation.
Aboriginals have historically voted in lower numbers than the rest of the Canadian population. Voter turnout on reserves was 45 per cent in the 2011 general election, compared to 61 per cent among the general population, according to an Elections Canada study.
It's hard to get exact statistics for off-reserve First Nations, Inuit and Metis voters, but a separate Elections Canada report showed they likely have similar voting patterns.
Aboriginals are also Canada's fastest-growing population, so their percentage of the electorate is also increasing. Aboriginal peoples also form an increasingly important part of the workforce, particularly in Western Canada.
"Parties are looking at the demographic trends. They can't afford to ignore aboriginal peoples anymore," said Queen's University policy studies Prof. Kathy Brock, an expert on aboriginal issues.
Both opposition parties are gunning for votes in northern Ontario, northern Quebec and the west. The Liberals, whose former leaders Paul Martin and Bob Rae already enjoy high credibility on First Nations issues, believe they can appeal generally to the aboriginal population and see an opportunity to start rebuilding the party with those constituents.
The Harper government's 2008 Indian residential schools apology created goodwill, though it has faded of late due to problems turning over archived documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is examining the legacy of the residential schools. But the Conservative Party has more aboriginal MPs than any other party in history (five) and last month they put Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk woman, in charge of the all-important environment file.
Later this month, Harper will embark on his annual Arctic trip, which usually involves meeting with indigenous leaders.
That said, opposition parties say they hear frustration from aboriginal leaders about a perceived paternalistic approach by the Harper government. They say their leaders are listening to what First Nations communities want, and will develop plans based on what they hear.
Beardy says he thinks the two opposition parties are trying to sell their own platforms, but also trying to understand what's important to First Nations people. And thanks to social media and greater access to technology in remote communities, there's an increased awareness among young First Nations people about what the issues are, he said.
"I think a lot of our people, especially young people, are paying very close attention to what's being said."
Eric Grenier, a political analyst who runs the website threehundredeight.com, has done analysis showing as many as 14 ridings where the Conservative candidate could have lost if aboriginals had turned out in greater numbers and supported a Liberal or NDP candidate. That would have made the difference between a majority and minority Conservative government.
The on-reserve vote mostly favoured the NDP in 2011, Grenier said.
"(First Nations voters) tend not to support the Conservatives. So if (the opposition) could get more of those voters out they would certainly benefit," he said.
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Elections Canada's chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2007, estimates there are 25 ridings in which aboriginal voters, if mobilized in favour of one candidate, could make the difference.
"The unsettled matter of aboriginals in Canada is percolating more and more amongst the general population and especially amongst the native populations of Canada," said Kingsley, now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's school of public and international affairs. "You just get the sense that finally we just might be starting to turn the corner. And elections would be a nice way to help accelerate that significantly."
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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, right, with National Aboriginal leaders Clement Chartier, left, Terry Audla, Shawn Atleo, and Betty Ann Lavallee, speaks to the media following a meeting, Wednesday.
Photograph by: The Canadian Press, Postmedia News
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