Of all the issues that have been raised during the federal election campaign – from the economy to the state of Canadian democracy to corporate tax cuts – what has been noticeably absent has been any discussion of Aboriginal issues. This is disturbing, given that, in the words of Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, “First Nations issues matter to all Canadians”. Some progress has been made in certain areas; the federal government’s apology for the residential schools policy and its decision to finally ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are two examples that come to mind. Nonetheless, deep social and economic gaps continue to exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, that in the end weaken us all as a country. Pick any measure – infant mortality rates; incidence of chronic illness; lack of access to affordable housing, clean drinking water and economic development opportunities; high school and post-secondary education dropout rates; unemployment levels; crime rates; poverty – and the figures for Aboriginal peoples far exceed those for the non-Aboriginal population. The “to-do” list confronting Canadians as we work towards undoing two centuries of colonization, assimilation and tragedy not only remains daunting, but serves as a constant reminder of the extent to which our political leaders continue to fail thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across this country.
Unfortunately, the lack of discussion of issues related to outstanding treaty and lands claims, harvesting rights, self-government, education and economic development to name just a few is only one aspect of the problem. The other concerns the ongoing marginalization of Aboriginal people from Canadian political institutions and processes. While it has been over half a century since Inuit and First Nations people gained the right to vote in federal elections, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples remain some of the most disenfranchised citizens in the entire country. While data on Aboriginal voting rates in Canada is quite limited, with wide variations across provinces and communities, from the evidence that is available it is clear that First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations participate in federal elections at a much lower rate than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. In the 2000 election, for example, the national Aboriginal vote stood at 48%, 16% lower than the non-Aboriginal voting rate, while in 2008, barely 10% of all eligible on-reserve voters cast their ballot.
While Aboriginal people are the fastest growing demographic group in Canada, they also constitute a significant percentage of the population in numerous ridings across the country. According to Elections Canada, over 25 ridings in the country have Aboriginal populations of over 10%. Nunavut, of course, is the riding that most comes to mind with an almost 80% Aboriginal population, but ridings such as Kenora-Rainy River (25% Aboriginal); Athabasca (20%) and Winnipeg North Centre and Regina-Qu’Appelle (both 14%) also demonstrate the extent to which Aboriginal votes could increasingly influence election outcomes now and into the future.
While some challenge whether Aboriginal people should even participate in federal and provincial elections to begin with (given that these represent “white man’s” systems, as opposed to First Nations, Métis and Inuit modes of governance), there has also been a concerted effort on the part of the Aboriginal leadership in Canada to encourage their citizens to vote. Websites of the national organizations representing Canada’s Aboriginal population (the Métis National Council, the Assembly of First Nations and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) all contain information on the upcoming election and the Aboriginal platforms of each of the major political parties. Facebook sites have also been created encouraging young Aboriginal voters to get out and cast their ballots; an especially important message given that the fastest growing segment within the Aboriginal population are youth under the age of 25.
Whether Aboriginal Canadians choose to participate in this election or not, one thing is clear. As Joseph Quesnel, a Métis policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy stated to the Aboriginal blog Media Indigena, “just because you don’t take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean politics will take an interest in you. You become part of someone else’s design for political life.” If we are truly going to build a democracy inclusive of all of peoples – most notably our First Peoples – it is critical that these voices be heard. By casting a ballot on Monday, this is one way in which Aboriginal peoples can help ensure that their issues – which are really Canadian issues – finally get heard.