Turnout among Indigenous Canadians increased dramatically in the last federal election, and an analysis of Elections Canada data suggests that the Liberals picked up most of these new voters. But overall, the New Democrats remained the top choice of First Nations voters living on-reserve.

According to Elections Canada, turnout in on-reserve polling divisions (defined as those completely or partially contained within an on-reserve community) in the 2015 federal election increased to 61.5 per cent from 47.4 per cent in 2011, a historic increase similar to the one seen among young Canadians.

An analysis of these polling divisions by CBC News also reveals how these First Nations voters cast their ballots.

At 39.2 per cent, the New Democrats took the largest share of the vote in on-reserve polling divisions. The Liberals finished second with 35.4 per cent, followed by the Conservatives at 20 per cent.

2015 on-reserve election results

This represented a tremendous increase in the Liberals' vote share, as the party had captured just 12.3 per cent of the vote in 2011 in these polling divisions.

But it is the raw vote total that tells the whole story of what happened in on-reserve communities. The Liberals picked up about 53,000 new votes in on-reserve polling divisions, compared with 18,000 new votes for the New Democrats. The Conservatives dropped by more than 11,000 votes.

This means that the efforts to increase turnout among Indigenous Canadians benefited both the Liberals and New Democrats. However, the Liberals disproportionately made gains among on-reserve voters who cast a ballot for the first time.

These numbers provide a strong indication of how some Indigenous Canadians voted in the last election. 

But according to Statistics Canada, about half of First Nations people with registered Indian status live on a reserve, and a little less than a quarter of Canadians who claim Aboriginal descent live on reserves. This analysis excludes a large segment of the Indigenous population, including Inuit, Métis, and non-status Indians — along with Indigenous Canadians who live off reserve in urban centres.

Additionally, the Elections Canada numbers include some polling divisions that include off-reserve populations. This means that many non-Indigenous Canadians who live close to reserves are included in these estimations.

NDP, Liberals dominate exclusively on-reserve vote

But it is possible to focus solely on the polling divisions that were located entirely on reserves, meaning that only a very small proportion of this population (roughly 10 per cent) would not be of Aboriginal descent. 

2015 on-reserve voting

The New Democrats again won the largest share of the vote in these polling divisions. But their share dropped dramatically from 2011, to 46.4 per cent from 58.4 per cent. The Liberals saw an increase of almost 28 points to 40.5 per cent, while the Conservatives dropped precipitously to just 9.3 per cent.

The NDP won the largest share of the vote in polling divisions located entirely on reserves in British Columbia (38 per cent), Ontario (50 per cent), Saskatchewan (53 per cent) and Alberta (67 per cent). The Liberals did best in Quebec (48 per cent) and in Atlantic Canada (77 per cent).

The Conservatives took 24 per cent of the vote in exclusively on-reserve polling divisions in British Columbia, but nowhere else did they do better than six per cent. Even in Alberta, where the party captured just under 60 per cent of the vote among the entire population, the Tories had just 5.7 per cent support in exclusively on-reserve polling divisions.

Decisive votes

But did these votes make a difference? In a handful of ridings, they may have.

In Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, the gains that NDP MP Niki Ashton made in on-reserve polling divisions helped her hold off the Liberals' Rebecca Chartrand. Ashton gained about 3,100 votes in on-reserve polling divisions thanks to higher turnout, while she only picked up 2,525 votes in the riding as a whole.

In Manicouagan, however, gains the Liberals made at the NDP's expense in on-reserve polling divisions may have cost the New Democrats the seat — but instead to the benefit of the Bloc Québécois.

Just a few hundred on-reserve votes may have also made the difference in the riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington. Overall, the Liberals gained almost 14,000 votes in the Ontario riding over their performance in 2011, including 464 votes in on-reserve polling stations.

The Liberals' Mike Bossio wrested the riding away from the Conservatives by just 225 votes.

The NDP's last bastion?

Although this analysis excludes a majority of Indigenous Canadians, if the ballots of on-reserve voters are at all indicative of the politics of those who do not live on a reserve, it suggests that this may be the only major demographic that the New Democrats won in what was otherwise a disastrous election for them. 

"Without question, the NDP has had a long-standing relationship with Indigenous Peoples across this country that goes back a number of decades," said Grand Chief Stewart Philip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, in an interview with CBC News.

Nevertheless, the Liberals made significant gains in the election thanks to Indigenous voters who went out to the polls for the first time. But unlike the NDP's Indigenous support, the Liberals' newfound favour may be conditional on results. Will the Indigenous support turn out again in 2019?

"It depends on whether [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau is prepared to walk the walk," says Philip. "He's certainly made a number of significant commitments to Indigenous Peoples in this country."

"However ... if there's no significant change within the socio-economic circumstances within our communities, we may end up reverting back to the attitudes of it making no difference who is in power, that Aboriginal people will always continue to get the short shrift."

With files from Karina Roman