Organizations work to get Aboriginal vote out in final weeks of election campaign
- Fraser Needham | October 08, 2015
One of the most interesting things to watch come October 19 is what the Aboriginal voter turnout will be in the federal election.
Typically, Aboriginal people have tended not to participate in either federal or provincial elections but there are reasons to believe this time around things might be different.
Whether it be missing and murdered Indigenous women, the Idle No More movement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Supreme Court rulings on duty to consult with First Nations, natural resource exploitation on traditional Aboriginal lands or government failure to uphold their end of treaty implementation – Indigenous issues have dominated media headlines in recent years.
At the same time, the Harper government has had a very acrimonious relationship with Aboriginal leaders over the past four years.
The Conservative government did earn itself some capital with Indigenous communities as a result of the residential schools apology in Parliament in 2008 but things have not gone well since.
Whether it is Bill C-45 which makes significant changes to First Nations land and water rights, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, the Harper government’s repeated refusal to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women or disputes over federal funding of First Nations education – Indigenous communities have often found themselves at odds with the Conservatives.
All of these things combined have led some observers to predict that the Aboriginal vote may indeed increase come election day.
Glenda Abbott and Melody Wood are the co-creators of a grassroots volunteer-driven group called Indigenous Vote 2015.
The two women started the non-partisan organization in response to the Harper government’s Bill C-23, which some critics believe was drafted by the Conservatives in order to make it more difficult for Aboriginal people to vote.
The bill introduces stricter voter identification requirements, such as a driver’s licence, as a means of proof of address.
Also gone is the practice of one voter being able to vouch for another as an option for proof of address.
The fear is that Aboriginal people living in urban centres, who tend to be more transient, will show up at the polls lacking proper identification documents and not be allowed to vote.
Vouching has also been a common practice on First Nations reserves where formal street addresses are less common.
Yet still, there is also the concern that Indigenous people will hear through the grapevine that more stringent rules have been put in place but not be aware of exactly what they are and then be more inclined to stay home on election day.
As a result, Abbott and Wood have been logging countless hours over the past nine months traveling to Aboriginal communities across the province to inform people of the types of documentation they will need to have on hand in order to cast a ballot in the election.
They have also been involved in organizing community forums that discuss the issue of Indigenous participation in the election.
With election day now only a few weeks away, Wood says they are working on helping to organize vehicle picks ups for Aboriginal people who may need a ride to the polls.
However, she stresses that the group’s efforts are all about encouraging Indigenous people to vote and not telling them how to vote.
“We try to take a non-partisan stance,” Wood says. “So, we of course encourage people to get out there and do research on each and every single one of the major parties, if not more, so that when it comes to election day, they are able to make the best informed decision on which party to vote for. I really think that’s the best approach because if we just say, ‘don’t vote for this party or vote for that party,’ that is almost making people’s decisions for them.”
Felix Thomas is the Chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council.
He says the STC is in the process of hiring people who will be going door-to-door in the various communities and offering help to get people enumerated, if they are not already, as well as organizing drivers to take voters to the polls on election day.
Chief Thomas also says the tribal council will have advocates at polling stations to help First Nations people assert their right to vote if they are having trouble doing so.
He acknowledges there is at times the issue that comes up where some First Nations people chose not to participate in either federal or provincial elections based on the belief that the treaty relationship is directly with the Crown and not any particular government.
However, Thomas says he does have a counter argument.
“There is a relationship with the Crown but at the same time we’ve had democratic processes like the Indian Act elections, tribal council and grand council elections, FSIN elections and even AFN elections that were foreign to us 30, 40 years ago but we made them ours,” he says. “This is just another election that we can make ours because it does influence us as well.”
Ken Coates is the director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan.
He says it remains unclear whether Aboriginal voter turnout is likely to increase in this election or not.
Coates says a lot of it will have to do with how much Indigenous issues come into play, if at all, as the parties battle it out during the final weeks of the campaign.
He says he has been disappointed thus far that Aboriginal issues have had some prevalence on a regional level over the course of the election but received very little attention on the national stage.
One thing Coates says he is not concerned about is the new voter identification requirements having much impact on the ability of Indigenous people to cast ballots.
“Most of the Aboriginal population is still located in either small towns or villages,” he says. “Half the population is still on-reserve and if you don’t have your ID on you, it’s not very hard to go home and get it. And, you are also not going to have lineups of 8,000 people to vote at most of these constituencies. It’s a barrier but it’s not a huge barrier.”
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