On May 2, 1969, Quebec became the last province in Canada to give Indigenous peoples the right to vote.
Now, more than 53 years later and with a provincial election campaign in full swing, some observers say so much more could — and should — be done to increase voter participation in the North and among Indigenous voters living in the cities.
"For many Indigenous nations it's a debate of another nation," said Alexis Wawanoloath, who in 2007 became the first and only Indigenous person elected since 1969 to Quebec's National Assembly, when he won for the Parti Québécois in Abitibi-Est.
The Assembly of First Nations Quebec Labrador (AFNQL) organized a debate Tuesday night to try and convince more Indigenous voters to engage with this provincial election.
"It is essential that relations with First Nations be on the agenda," said Ghislain Picard, head of the AFNQL, in a release.
"We cannot afford another four years in the same spot and even taking steps back on various issues that affect us. Quebec is lagging behind in Indigenous matters and must do better."
Observers like Wawanoloath and Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree Nation government, say politicians and parties need to do a much better job of making them care.
"When Indigenous peoples' issues are on the ballot, they will participate, but if they're not, they won't, they'll stay away," said Namagoose.
Ungava voter participation lowest in Quebec
In 2018, voter participation in the northern Quebec riding of Ungava, for example, was just over 30 per cent, less than half what it was in the rest of the province, according to Elections Quebec and close to 16 per cent lower than the second to last place riding of D'arcy-McGee.
And a closer dive into the numbers shows that in Indigenous communities in Ungava, participation was even lower.
In the largest Cree community of Chisasibi, for example, voter turnout was just 8.6 per cent on election day. In Kuujjuaq, the largest community in Nunavik, it was 18.7 per cent on election day and that was with an Inuk candidate running. (Voting results in advanced polls are not included in these numbers, as Elections Quebec doesn't keep track of these numbers by community).
So how to change that and increase voter participation?
There are a record number of nine Indigenous candidates running in this provincial election, including two in the riding of Ungava. Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, from the Cree community of Waswanipi, is running for Quebec solidaire and Tunu Napartuk, from Nunavik, is running for the Quebec Liberals.
That will translate into a higher voter turnout, according to Wawanoloath.
"[Indigenous voters in Ungava] will be able to feel represented … to see themselves in these candidates," he said.
But having Indigenous candidates is only part of the answer, according to both Wawanoloath and Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree Nation Government.
Namagoose says parties need to get much better at reflecting Indigenous priorities in their platforms and says Indigenous organizations like the Assembly of First Nations Quebec Labrador have an important role to play.
In the 2015 and 2019 federal elections, the Assembly of First Nations was commissioned by Elections Canada to get more Indigenous voters engaged. The efforts included supporting outreach efforts, organizing information campaigns and circulating information about party platforms on issues important to Indigenous voters, among others.
And it worked.
Between 2011 and 2015, the voting rate increased by 15 percentage points among Indigenous voters, according to Statistics Canada.
"[The AFN] estimates they turned over 15 seats to the Liberals, and that was the difference in the Liberals getting a majority [in 2015]," said Namagoose.
The debate Tuesday was only the second time the AFNQL has created a way to discuss Indigenous issues and priorities in a Quebec election. The first time was in 2007, and for both debates the organization did it without support from Elections Quebec, according to an AFNQL spokesperson.
But beyond debates, political parties also need to have more Indigenous voices in their caucuses and make those spaces safer for Indigenous politicians, said Wawanoloath.
He cites high-profile departures of the former federal justice minister, Jody Wilson Raybould, and MPs such as Robert-Falcon Ouellette, as examples of how much more work needs to be done.
Change to constitution
For Wawanoloath, increasing representation and Indigenous engagement in provincial and federal politics will take profound changes to the current system, beyond even the limits of the constitution.
"It will be necessary to change our constitution so there is a real place for Indigenous peoples," said Wawanoloath.
He says reopening the constitution is needed to guarantee space in the senate and other assemblies for Indigenous voices.
"We see it in other countries. There are the Sámi parliaments. There are special parliamentary commissions for the Maori in New Zealand," said Wawanoloath.
"There are many models that exist in the world that should inspire us and give Indigenous peoples a place, not only defined by the electoral system we have now," he said.
Wawanoloath says both the Trudeau and Legault governments have lost an opportunity to make more significant changes to increase Indigenous engagement in politics by not acting on promises to move to a more proportional model of representation.
Tuesday's debate was live-streamed on APTN, in both English and French and hosted by Marie-Eve Bordeleau.