North·Analysis

Yukon First Nations urge citizens to vote in federal election

Aboriginal voters have been historically under-represented at the ballot box across Canada. In Yukon, this election may prove a game-changer, as First Nations chiefs make sure their citizens are registered and able to vote. They're urging members to exercise their democratic right.

Yukon First Nations are making sure their citizens are registered and ready to vote

A still from music video produced to encourage Indigenous Peoples to vote, by the group Young Medicine. CBC North's Nancy Thomson says that the push to galvanize the Indigenous vote may be felt in Yukon as much as anywhere else in Canada. (Youtube)

As the 2015 election enters the final stretch, the parties are fighting tooth and nail for every last vote.

One segment of the population that has not historically been well-represented at the polls is that of aboriginal Canadians

Some studies say fewer aboriginal people vote because lower educational and socio-economic levels lead to less engagement. Others say First Nations don't care about participating in an electoral process that's foreign to aboriginal culture. Still others believe that aboriginal voters feel excluded in general, and don't trust the Canadian political system.

This election may be a game-changer.

The First Nations vote has been the subject of vigorous debate at the national level this year: the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde said, "it is vital that First Nations voices be heard in every way possible, including through the ballot box. You need to be an example. You need to vote."

That sentiment is reflected in the Yukon.

Recent federal amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act have provoked outrage from First Nations, with three preparing to sue Canada over the changes enacted through Bill S-6.

"We're not just sitting idly by, ignoring these issues," said Doris Bill, chief of Kwanlin Dün, Yukon's most populous First Nation. "I think if anything, things like S-6 have motivated people to vote. I think people will come to the polls to make it count.

"I think it's critically important. For myself, I'm going to be doing everything within our community to see that people get out and vote," Bill said.    
'I think it's critically important,' said Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill, who says she's 'going to be doing everything within our community to see that people get out and vote.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Kwanlin Dün and several other First Nations have hired coordinators to ensure that all citizens are able to vote.

Last year, the federal government amended the Elections Act, adding stricter voter ID requirements, and specifying that voters must be able to prove their name and home address.

That can be a problem for First Nations people living in small rural communities, which often do not use street addresses.

The AFN has designed a "Letter of Confirmation of Residence" that aboriginal voters can use when they go to vote. It functions as a form of ID, proving a home address. It can be signed by a band administrator and, when presented with a second piece of ID, such as a status card, will be accepted by Elections Canada.

First Nations vote could tip balance in Yukon

"We as a First Nation have decided that as many people as want to vote, will be eligible to vote," Mathieya Alatini, chief of the Kluane First Nation, said. "We've hired somebody to go door-to-door, and sit down with people and go through the requirements for identification, make sure that they're on the voters list."

Alatini agrees that First Nations voters are galvanized in a way she's never seen before.

Chief Mathieya Alatini leads Yukon’s Kluane First Nation. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
"We live in Canada. We have a federal election. That is the government that has the say on how all of our tax dollars get spent. So if you want your say in changing who that government is or putting that government in place, then you need to act responsibly and exercise your vote." 

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, the Teslin Tlingit Council, and the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation are doing the same. 

This "get out the vote" movement among First Nations, if successful, could tip the balance in the Yukon, which is considered to be a swing riding in a tightly contested battle between the three main parties.

Bill says it's time for First Nations voters to make their mark.

"I think there's enough aboriginal people within the territory, and according to the AFN research that they did, there are enough aboriginal people within the territory to influence the outcome."

'The catalyst is things like Bill S-6'

Dana Tizya-Tramm, a 28-year-old member of the Vuntut Gwitchin, sees the emergence of a far more sophisticated approach to voting from First Nations.

"I think what we're seeing is a type of maturity in the way we react with politics," Tizya-Tramm said. "Because we've been somewhat left out of them for quite a while, we've only recently got the vote, within the past 50 years."

"I think you're starting to see our governments and our culture starting to pay attention a lot more to this machine and to work it to our benefit."

Tizya-Tramm says First Nations people have felt paternalistic attitudes from politicians of all stripes in the past. He says that's changing.

"I think we're really becoming empowered now and the catalyst is things like Bill S-6," he said. "We're worried about this future, we're worried about our lands... so we want to have a hand shaping our future."

Some chiefs in southern Canada have exhorted their citizens to boycott the federal election, saying it's not how First Nations traditionally governed. 

Tizya-Tramm says that's a clumsy and shortsighted strategy.

"If people want change, we have to make it. We need participation. We have an opportunity to shape it," he says. "It's malleable, it's not made of steel, we have to be inspired and we have to participate."

"We have to make this government a reflection of us, not the other way around."  

About the Author

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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