Canadians head to the polls today, May 2, amid much debate about whether to vote. The Akwesasne in particular are staunchly opposed to casting a ballot in a nation whose government is not theirs.
That said, there is a lot of political involvement on the part of Canada’s aboriginals, and more First Nations, Métis and Inuit candidates are running in this federal election than ever before. Moreover, First Nations voter turnout is expected to be at an all-time high.
The Assembly of First Nations and its leaders across the country have made a concerted effort to raise awareness about indigenous issues and engage First Nations citizens in the political contests. While National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has carefully avoided encouraging people to vote, leaving that decision up to individuals and their communities, other leaders have been proactive about getting aboriginals to the polls.
“More and more First Nations leaders, for example, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Dene Nation and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, are publicly encouraging their community members to vote, and have also hosted public forums to provide community members with the opportunity to fully engage with all political parties,” Atleo said.
First Nations citizens are active voters in Canadian elections in many regions. In the last election, especially in ridings across Atlantic Canada and northern regions where indigenous peoples are a significant portion of the population, rates of participation for on-reserve residents exceeded 50 percent and exceeded Canadian averages, according to the AFN.
The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) will broadcast live coverage of the Canadian election all day. There’s also a Twitter feed, #aptnelxn41, the station said. Voters and other interested parties will be able to track the 33 aboriginal candidates vying for seats in 24 ridings—the highest number ever of indigenous candidates in a federal election—as well as get a gander at how it might go for the billions of dollars in platform promises that have been made to the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
Another first: For the first time, four aboriginal candidates are competing for a seat in one riding: the Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River riding in northern Saskatchewan, where incumbent Conservative Rob Clarke (Cree) is facing three challengers—Green Party George Morin (Cree), Liberal Gabe LaFond (Métis) and NDP Lawrence Joseph (Cree).
Clarke is touting the $10.4 million he has brought to the area for projects such as road upgrades, the water treatment system, student housing and funding for Northwest Regional College. There is no mention on his website platform of First Nations or indigenous issues; however, Clarke states his “belief that English and French have equality of status, and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.”
The Conservative Party was conspicuously absent from an AFN-hosted town meeting on April 27 at the University of Toronto. The Assembly had invited all the political parties to attend and debate the top issues that First Nations leaders have determined as priorities: affirmation of indigenous rights, equitable education for indigenous children, partnership supporting indigenous economies, and safety and community health for all indigenous peoples.
During the debate, NDP candidate Charles Angus promised to treat First Nations “as equal partners—not as a problem, not as something to be controlled, but as equal partners to say how we move forward.”
John McCallum from the Liberal Party said that the “implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must not be symbolic but must be used to significantly improve Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples to reflect the principles of the Declaration.
“We’re waiting for the implementation plan—and then another set of dusty books I’ll pull out for my aboriginal politics class from time to time,” said Green Party candidate Jacqueline Romanow, a Métis. “Something fundamental has to change.”
Atleo closed the debate with an impassioned speech for progress, calling on Canada to fulfill human rights obligations at home as it does abroad.
“Whether it’s in the streets of Toronto or in the villages of the far north, these are challenges that Canada faces. Canada stands as a beacon of human rights around the world. It can deploy clean drinking water to Africa, build schools and homes in South America,” he said. “There was always, always this vision of living together in full mutual respect and recognition, and somehow over the course of history we’ve seen this drifting apart, this deep gap of misunderstanding start to come into play.”
The treaties don’t just belong to the indigenous nations, but belong to Canadians as well, Atleo reminded the audience: “You’ve inherited an obligation that is borne to you by the ancestors.”