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Inside the aboriginal vote in Alberta

The solution to getting more aboriginal voters is simple, say both political pundits and candidates, have more aboriginal people on the ballot.

Racism cited as biggest barrier in attracting indigenous candidates

Aretha Greatrix, is seeking the NDP nomination in Edmonton-St. Albert. (CBC)

The solution to getting more aboriginal voters in Canadian elections is simple, say both political pundits and candidates — have more aboriginal people on the ballot.

So far, Alberta has two officially nominated candidates who are aboriginal, with at least two more aboriginal candidates seeking nominations:

  • Aaron Paquette NDP candidate for Edmonton-Manning
  • Cameron Alexis, NDP candidate for Peace River-Westlock
  • Katherine Swampy, NDP, seeking nomination for Red Deer- Lacombe​
  • Aretha Greatrix, NDP, seeking nomination Edmonton-St. Albert

Across the country, there are 34 aboriginal candidates, up slightly from the 31 who ran in 2011. However, this number could still rise because the deadline for nominations isn't until September 28, 2015.

In his 2011 report, Peter Loewen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, looked into the reasons why aboriginal turnout was low in the last federal election. He found the reasons aboriginal people don't vote tend to be same for other Canadians; age, lower income and lower education levels.

"Finally, we find that Aboriginals, like non-Aboriginals, are more likely to vote when they have more political resources (i.e.  political knowledge and information) and a greater sense of civic duty," he wrote.

But Loewen said the candidates themselves were also an important factor.

"When aboriginal candidates run, it motivates more aboriginals to vote because they know there's someone there that will be defending their interests," he told CBC News.

One-time federal NDP candidate Lewis Cardinal, who is aboriginal himself, put it more bluntly,

"The first one through the wall gets bloodied but it opens the opportunity for others."

Cardinal ran in 2011 and had planned to run this time but personal and health reasons have prevented him from seeking election this time. 

He said he'll still be involved in this election, specifically helping out with former chief Cameron Alexis campaign in Peace River-Westlock, who recently secured the nomination.

"I think there's a lot of disconnect right now with the processes and how you get elected," said Alexis, reached by phone at his home in Sherwood Cove, Lake Isle, about 80 kilometres west of Edmonton. 

Racism biggest barrier, say aboriginal candidates

Cardinal said racism likely keeps aboriginal people from seeking nomination for political office.

"Racism is one of the unspoken and big issues across Canada," he said.

For NDP candidate and born and raised Edmontonian, Aretha Greatrix, racism has been both a deterrent and an incentive to enter politics.

"I was really kind of afraid of the racism," the 32-year-old said, adding that she used to dread riding the bus in Edmonton, knowing she'd hear an offhand racist comment or a joke about aboriginal people.

"It's kind of like that fear, do you want to invite that negativity in your life?

"Do you want to put yourself out there so that you can attacked by people for a reason that's just for your background."

In the end, it was the racism that Katherine Swampy, an aboriginal candidate in the provincial election endured, that ultimately was part of the reason why Greatrix decided to run.

"I think when she went through it I almost felt like a fire in me, I'm not going to let her stand alone this time."

Both Greatrix and Alexis said they hope issues specific to aboriginal people, but really those that affect all Canadians, will increase voter turnout amongst First Nations.

"I think missing and murdered women is a big number one for me," said Greatrix.

"I didn't grow up with violence in my home but I did grow up seeing violence in friends' homes and that affected me greatly. There has to be a stopping point, it's the circle of violence and addiction, there has to be a stop to it."

Currently, the two aboriginal candidates in Alberta who have secured their nomination are both running for the NDP, a fact that Greatrix chalked up to the party's commitment to the "grassroots."

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