Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde is urging aboriginal people to go to the ballot box this October, arguing they could wield great influence in the electoral outcome.

But that message seemed to be undercut by his admission Wednesday that he did not cast a vote in the last election and was uncertain whether he would in this election.

Bellegarde reasoned that as someone who has been elected into First Nations leadership positions, he should remain non-partisan, even when it comes to voting in a secret ballot. But after repeated questions from reporters, Bellegarde said he might reconsider that position.

The national chief unveiled his group's priorities for the election at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, including a focus on closing the gap in the standard of living between First Nations people and other Canadians.

Bellegarde suggested various ways to address the inequality:

  • Strengthening First Nations, families and communities through key investments in education, training and child care on reserves.
  • Holding an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
  • Equitable funding, particularly removing the two per cent cap on annual funding increases for reserve programs and services.
  • Developing a plan from the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation commission report.

But Bellegarde acknowledged that to achieve these goals and to get politicians to address their concerns, First Nations voter turnout needs to improve.

Fifty-one ridings across Canada have been identified by the AFN as potential swing ridings where, according to Bellegarde, the outcome could be determined by the turnout of aboriginal voters. Or, more importantly, the turnout could determine whether a minority or majority government is elected.

Aboriginal vote historically low

But to achieve the influence that Bellegarde envisions, First Nations voter turnout would have to substantially increase. Historically, the aboriginal vote has been difficult to mobilize, with low voter turnout on reserves in particular.

In 2011, the only place where the on-reserve voter turnout approached the national level (61 per cent) was the Yukon riding, where 57 per cent of the on-reserve voters cast a ballot. While many regions saw on-reserve voter turnout percentages in the high 40s, in Quebec it was as low as 28 per cent, according to a list provided by the AFN.

Democratic participation among aboriginal voters is further complicated by a belief held by some that, because they consider the First Nations sovereign, the federal government of Canada does not speak for them. 

Bellegarde said he respected that belief, but for others not restricted by such convictions, the AFN  needs to do a better job of encouraging people to get to the ballot box by raising awareness.

Some First Nations are holding identification clinics to help their members get what they need to vote. Bellegarde said the AFN is encouraging First Nations chiefs to partner up with Elections Canada, which has given $475,000 to the AFN to help inform aboriginal voters about their right to vote and explain how to do it.

In 2015, new voter eligibility rules are in place that the AFN says could make it more difficult to cast ballots. Aboriginal voters may not have the documents required to meet the new identification requirements at polling stations.

Still, Bellegarde remained optimistic that voter turnout will improve, saying that First Nations "can and will be a major factor in this election."

Non-partisan, chief says

He refused to endorse any party, saying he's strictly non-partisan and hopes to hear feedback from all the parties on the AFN priorities.

But when asked to rate his organization's relationship with the Harper government on a scale of one to 10, he said it would receive a low number.

"It needs work," he said, when asked by CBC's Julie Van Dusen how he'd rate the relationship. "It's obviously not a 10 and it's not a one. It would be low."

Bellegarde said he would be "hard pressed" to find one thing he was happy with that came from Harper's government in the past five years.

All the major federal parties are running candidates who are First Nations, Métis or Inuit. The numbers of those nominated so far are:

  • New Democrats: 23
  • Liberals: 16
  • Conservatives: 3
  • Greens: 7

Aboriginal issues have been receiving some attention from the party leaders. On Wednesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who has already pledged that his government would create a cabinet-level committee devoted to the issues, said he had spoken with Bellegarde. "We really are on the same wavelength about a lot of things," Mulcair said.

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said his government would drop the two per cent funding increase cap (introduced by the Liberals) and revive the Kelowna accord, an agreement negotiated by former prime minister Paul Martin to pour $5 billion into education and social welfare programs for aboriginal people. It was scrapped when Harper came to power.

On Wednesday, he tweeted that he supports Bellegarde's plan to "close the gap and restore a true nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations."

In a statement, the Harper campaign made no mention of Bellegarde's plan, instead saying it believes "increasing aboriginal participation in the economy is the most effective way to improve the well-being and quality of life of aboriginal people in Canada."

It listed a number of investments the Conservative government had made, which includes $11 billion in funding each year to First Nations.