'I want to have a say': Indigenous voters push for bigger presence in B.C. election

Just days away from the B.C. election, in what appears to be a tight race, candidates are clamouring for votes in ridings across the province — including in Indigenous communities.

With more than 288 First Nations in B.C. and Indigenous people the fastest-growing demographic in the province, politicians are trying to get their messages out on everything from liquefied natural gas projects to the over-representation of Indigenous children in ministry care to the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.

As more Indigenous people reach voting age and see their communities reflected in platforms, some First Nations people in B.C. want to encourage others to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Tara Marsden 

Tara Marsden is a Gitksan mother of two with a master's degree and an executive position with the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs. She doesn't always take part in the provincial vote, but this year made it a priority.

"Each election I weigh what is at stake and this election there is a lot at stake for our region," she said from her home in Hazelton, B.C., more than 700 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. "I want to have a say."

Marsden says some First Nations people don't trust governments to keep promises, but she sees her vote as sending a message to current sitting governments.

"If there are issues that affect people's lives, it's important for any person to vote," she added.

Major election issues for her are a lack of sustainable development and long-term job opportunities in what she calls an economically depressed region.

"There's been some growth in a couple mining projects but forestry has faced a sharp decline over the last decade or so," she said.

Marsden doesn't always vote for the B.C. New Democratic Party, but says this time around its platform stood out.

"They are saying they will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples — it's a solid commitment for respectful development on First Nations territories," she said.

The B.C. Green Party has promised to recognize First Nations as equals in land and resource management.

For its part, the B.C. Liberal Party says it will support partnerships between First Nations and industry proponents to improve economic development opportunities.

Robert Dennis

Robert Dennis is a Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor living in Bamfield, B.C., about 140 kilometres northwest of Victoria. He has marked his "x" on the ballot in every provincial election for the last 50 years, since he was of voting age in 1967.

"In our region, the First Nation vote was always very active at that time," Dennis said.

First Nations people got the right to vote in B.C.'s election in 1949 — two years after Chinese Canadians and almost 30 years after women were granted the right.

Dennis encourages his people to use whatever tools they have to create change, including being active in their social and political networks and taking advantage of every political system — be it band, municipal or provincial elections.

"For some it's location, location, location — for us, it's relationship, relationship, relationship," he said.

This year, just like the last 15, Dennis has voted for the B.C. Liberal Party. He says it was the 34th premier of B.C., Gordon Campbell, introducing revenue sharing for First Nations that got him on that party's train.

"Twenty years ago, we wouldn't even have a forestry license, we wouldn't be operating half a dozen businesses in our community, we wouldn't be participating in the treaty," he said.

He tells the younger generations to use the political bodies at hand to create change needed to happen.

"We all have one common goal, to make things better for B.C.," he said.

Kristen Rivers (Tiyaltelut)

Kristen Rivers (Tiyaltelut) is a 32-year-old Squamish and Kwakwakwakw mother who says she sees her people reflected in the B.C. election and is voting to see change.

"Mental health, the overdose crisis, poverty and child care are all issues that speak to me and the people in my immediate circle of friends and family," she said from her North Vancouver home.

The North Vancouver-Lonsdale constituency has a potential to be a swing riding, she says, if Indigenous people decide to vote for the same party, since there are two Squamish Nation reserves in the constituency.

"I believe our people have the potential to turn our riding from Liberal to NDP," she said.

While all three parties' platforms address two of Rivers' top electoral issues — childcare and poverty — she says the NDP is the only party to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous languages.

"Our language connects us to one another and provides a source of resiliency and strength," she said.

The B.C. Greens say they plan to implement some of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which include a call for governments to acknowledge Aboriginal language rights.

To support First Nations cultures, the B.C. Liberals say they will provide funds to help return Indigenous ancestral remains and belongings.

Kwut hwum qun (Matthew Louie)

Kwut hwum qun (Matthew Louie) works for a software company in his Cowichan Tribes community on Vancouver Island. He hasn't decided where he will put his vote for but thinks all Indigenous people, especially youth, need to get out to vote.

"I want more Indigenous voters represented because when politicians see Indigenous voters turning up at the polls, our issues have a higher priority," Louie said.

He says the fact there was no mention of the words "Indigenous," "Aboriginal" or "First Nations" during the televised debate of the B.C. election motivated him to push for more Indigenous people to vote.

He is listening to what each party has to say about Indigenous children and youth in ministry care, and land-use decisions.

"Whichever party forms government, their policies in these areas will really affect the seven generations to come," he said from his home in Nanaimo, B.C.

All parties say they will implement Special Advisor Grand Chief Ed John's report on Indigenous child welfare.