In the first federal election since the Idle No More movement signalled a renewed political engagement among Canada’s aboriginal population, indigenous leaders are looking for change.
National chief Perry Bellegarde told an Assembly of First Nations (AFN) general assembly on July 7 that his group has identified 51 ridings across the country where aboriginal voters can swing the results, including nearly two dozen in the hands of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Despite historically low levels of voter turnout among Canada’s indigenous populations, Bellegarde and others say this election is different.
“People are starting to realize the power of the First Nations vote if we can get organized,” Bellegarde told Yahoo Canada News.
Bellegarde said that, while Canada is ranked in the top 10 in the United Nations' human development index, which includes measures of health, education and employment, the country's aboriginal population ranks in the 60s.
"When we win as First Nations people on any issue, everybody wins because that gap starts to close," he said. "There's a huge social cost to that gap. This election is an opportunity to bring about that change."
The 51 ridings include six in Ontario, three in Manitoba and seven in Saskatchewan, with around a further half dozen in British Columbia that have changed boundaries because of the recent expansion from 308 to 338 seats in Parliament.
While Bellegarde avoids partisan rhetoric, other AFN leaders have shown less reservation in calling for an end to Harper’s time in office.
Ghislain Picard, the regional AFN chief for Quebec and Labrador, called the nine years that Harper has been prime minister “disastrous” for aboriginal Canadians.
“I don’t see how we can go another four years with this government, frankly,” he has said.
In the Friday interview, Bellegarde said it wouldn’t help his position to endorse any particular politician or party, and pledged to work with whomever is elected in October to address aboriginal issues.
"We just want to make sure that our people make informed choices," he said.
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the government is taking steps to improve the well-being of Canada’s First Nations population, including new investment in education and skills training.
Emily Hillstrom said in an email that the government has built 41 new schools and funded over 500 school projects and taken action to support the integrity of the elections by which local and national indigenous leaders are elected, among other efforts.
“Our government believes that Aboriginal Peoples should have the same quality of life and the same opportunities as all other Canadians,” she said.
There are currently seven serving members of Parliament with aboriginal roots: four with the Conservatives from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut, including cabinet ministers Shelly Glover and Leona Aglukkaq, two from Quebec serving the New Democratic Party of Canada and one Liberal from Labrador.
The Liberal Party of Canada plans to field at least 13 candidates of aboriginal descent in the coming election, while the New Democratic Party has at least 11 candidates of aboriginal descent and the Conservatives are fielding three candidates of aboriginal descent.
In 2012, the Idle No More movement made headlines as aboriginal groups coalesced around opposition to a change to the law around Canada’s navigable waterways. The movement evolved into a grassroots campaign seeking to redress many aboriginal issues that activists felt had been ignored for too long, such as the poor living conditions on many reserves and what they saw as government inactivity in the face of serious social problems in indigenous communities.
Alice Funke, the publisher of election-tracking website Pundits’ Guide, said that the youth-driven Idle No More movement illustrates some of the power of a new generation of aboriginal Canadians.
According to Statistics Canada, 48.2 per cent of the aboriginal population in Canada is under the age of 24, compared with 29.4 per cent of the non-aboriginal population.
“The question for them is if they want to remain outside the Canadian political process or are they prepared to exert their clout at the ballot box,” she said.
Historical voting patterns show that turnout among aboriginal Canadians is consistently lower than that of the general population.
In 2011, Elections Canada released a study that showed voter turnout for the general population was 58.8 per cent in the 2008 general election; for aboriginal voters as a whole it was 54.2 per cent. Among First Nations, voter turnout was 50.1 per cent.
The same study found that those who live on First Nations reserves report a lower turnout than those who live off-reserve.
Yet the number of aboriginal voters engaged in the political process through voting has risen over the past two decades, even as overall voter turnout has fallen.
Previous studies from the federal agency found that in the early 1990s there were spreads of between 15 to 20 per cent between turnout among aboriginal voters and the general population.
One Elections Canada study pointed to numerous reasons for the gap, including the long history of poor treatment of Aboriginal Peoples by the Canadian government, the relatively low number of aboriginal candidates, the lack of a national debate about aboriginal issues and poor communication and education about the voting process.
“There have been historically some hurdles and some challenges,” Bellegarde said. “But more and more people are getting it and understanding that we need to make a difference. And if we don't participate in these decision-making processes, nobody's going to care about our issues.”