Indigenous people and provincial politics have historically been like oil and water
Although most reserves and Métis settlements are older than Saskatchewan, many Indigenous people don't get involved in provincial politics.
The two candidates in the northern Saskatchewan constituency of Athabasca say its time to shake things up.
The province's 29th general election is well underway. NDP incumbent Buckley Belanger and Saskatchewan Party candidate Kelly Kwan are urging Saskatchewan's Indigenous people to get involved in the process.
The Athabasca riding is one of the largest yet least populated, which makes campaigning tough.
Although the candidates belong to opposing parties, both got involved in politics for the same reason –– to provide a voice for the people of the north at the provincial level.
This is Belanger's sixth election. He's seen a lot in his years, but remains steadfast in his conviction to serve those in his riding.
In 1995, he was serving his third term as the mayor of Île-à-la-Crosse, a small village in northern Saskatchewan.
"As a young guy that had all these ambitions and all these principals and values, I really thought I could make a significant difference in the region so I decided to run as an MLA," said Belanger.
During his career he has served as minister in various portfolios including Northern Affairs, Environment, Community Resources, and Highways and Transportation.
Most recently, as part of the Opposition, he has served as the NDP's Deputy Whip and critic for Highways and Infrastructure, SaskEnergy, SaskWater and the Water Security Agency.
Although Kwan is new to the political game, he said he's ready to step into the role as politician, if elected.
Kwan is of mixed heritage. His birth mother was Cree and his father was Chinese, but he was adopted by a Dene woman so he is fluent in Dene. A long-time educator, he is appealing to the communities he has worked in to consider casting a ballot in his favour. He knows it will be tough to defeat Belanger, who he considers a long-time friend.
"Historically, as Indigenous people, we have always been kind of passive and we let things happen without standing up for what some of our wishes, thoughts and dreams are," said Kwan. "I think now is the time to start getting involved in how our constituency [functions]."
Youth engagement in the north
Both men see a shift happening in the north among young people who are returning after obtaining an education. They say youth are more engaged, more vocal and more interested in creating change.
"If we can get them involved in the whole political process then I think the future MLAs of this area will not only be better looking but a lot brighter, more intelligent and more organized in how they do their job, and that keeps me focused and inspired," said Belanger. "I believe the young people are going to come and solve the ills of the north, there is no question about that."
Both men believe there is much lost potential when Indigenous people choose not to get involved.
"They have the power to determine a third of the provincial seats, if they exercise their ability to vote provincially," said Belanger.
The province and First Nations have historically butted heads. There are many unresolved issues between the two groups, one of which is the Natural Resource Transfer Agreement. First Nations feel their relationship is with the federal government and tend to stay out of provincial politics.
"But they have the ability to affect policy and determine political outcomes for many parties if they participate in those provincial elections," said Belanger. "Because Indigenous people are not participating to the extent that they should, we are finding that a lot of mainstream parties are not trying to gain their support as they may have 10 years ago."
He said Indigenous people should consider voting at the same rates they do for chief and council elections and northern mayoral elections.
"My dream is to have our people realize the incredible provincial strength they have," said Belanger. "We need to use many of the advantages that we have — to vote, block vote, to affect policy and to challenge these political parties."
He said the lack of respect for people who can affect a third of the vote continues because that group is not exercising their right to vote.
"My father was a [Second] World War vet." said Belanger. "He was a Métis person, proud of his Aboriginal heritage, at 17-years-old he went overseas to fight for democracy and freedom. He taught us to love our country, taught us to work hard, respect others and all those good things."
Despite the sacrifices made by Indigenous people, inequality still exists — not only between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but between the north and south, Belanger said.
Kwan said bridges can be built as long as people agree to work together and find common ground.
He is hoping by going door-to-door to solicit votes. This will help raise interest in the provincial election among Indigenous communities.
"We want to start having some meaningful and significant input into what happens in our region, especially for the future generations," he said. "What legacy are we going to leave for [the next generation] if we continue to not engage with the government?"