Indigenous leaders in Sask. weigh in on voting in federal election

With the federal election around the corner Indigenous leaders and community members are discussing an old question — to vote, or not?

Community efforts are underway to help Indigenous voters cast their ballots if they want

People from Indigenous organizations and communities in Saskatchewan are weighing in on a number of issues and questions that Indigenous people face when voting. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With the federal election around the corner, Indigenous leaders and community members are discussing an old question: to vote or not?

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations chief Bobby Cameron said he's hopeful that every undecided First Nation person 18 and older cast their ballot — but he's also respecting the view of those who choose not to. 

"It's imperative and crucial that our people vote," Cameron said. 

"I know some people say 'they don't represent me, so I'm not voting,' or 'they don't speak for me, I'm not voting,' that's their choice. But the fact of the matter is, whatever government gets in, they're making decisions on First Nation's behalf."

Cameron said he's telling Indigenous people who want to vote but are undecided to "follow their heart and follow their minds."

Bobby Cameron said for the FSIN, inherent and treaty rights are the top priority in every discussion he has with elected officials and that will continue with the newly elected government. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Cameron noted that in the last five to 10 years, he's seen Members of Parliament become more accessible to Indigenous and First Nation organizations and make a point of communicating better with them. 

That's something he attributed to a realization of the voting power Indigenous people in Canada have. 

"Is there room for improvement? Absolutely there is, but at least we are getting our voices heard, we are sitting at these tables, we're putting our positions on every sector that affects First Nations forward," Cameron said. 

Cameron said for the FSIN, inherent and treaty rights are the top priority in every discussion he has with elected officials and that will continue with the newly elected government. 

Going forward, after the new government is sworn in, Cameron also said he hopes to see a reduction in the amount of bureaucracy that impacts First Nation communities in Saskatchewan and Canada. 

Cameron said less than half of every dollar the federal government spends on housing is spent in Indigenous communities. 

"I'm pretty pissed off, I'm very pissed off with that [housing] statistic. We've got so many problems with First Nation housing, you wonder why. Things like that got to change," Cameron said.

"They got to get rid of some of the bureaucrats. They can retire. They can get another job."

Voting protects treaty rights: BOCN councillor 

Kevin Seeseequasis, who has worked with the federal Liberal party in the past, is now a councillor on the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation (BOCN). 

He said people in BOCN in general see voting as a way to protect their treaty rights, by ensuring their voice is heard. 

Seesequasis put together an Indigenous voting guide that was launched on Thursday. 

"It's important to recognize that there's so much diversity in all of our communities and it's so important that people also have information about what that diversity looks like in our communities," he said.

Community members helping people cast ballots

For those who do decide they want to vote, some communities in Saskatchewan are figuring out how to make that happen. 

Seesequasis said there are some challenges Indigenous voters face before even casting their ballots. 

"You can look on Google Maps today and still find in reserves you don't have street names and you don't have those types of things on reserves," he said. 

Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation councillor Kevin Seesequasis created an Indigenous voters guide that was launched earlier this week. (Kevin Seesequasis/Facebook)

In the 2015 federal election, people were not allowed to vouch on behalf of band members and confirm they lived on reserve. That change has since been reversed as a way to reduce one barrier First Nations people on reserve face when voting.

Alex Grigori, who worked with the federal NDP in the past, said she got involved in politics to increase voter turnout among Indigneous people. 

"Our ancestors were denied this right," Grigori said. "It was a very short time ago that we were granted the right to vote. Historically, our voice has been absent from the table." 

Grigori said that Indigneous people are one of the fastest growing population demographics in Saskatchewan and that gives them a big advantage in terms of getting representation in Ottawa. 

In Okanese, the band is providing people with rides to polling stations to allow them to cast their ballot. The band's chief will be vouching for residents who live on-reserve at polling stations, and she made herself available to do so during advance polling according to Daniel Walker. 

But it all comes down to whether or not people want to cast their vote or not. 

"Another [challenge] is some people simply don't care, or don't see the need for [voting]," he said.

He added that in the past, some people have felt one party or another is seen as the overwhelming winner and their vote won't matter, or that they were too worried about splitting the vote between two parties and losing that way. 

"I've been around for awhile, and we've seen an attempt at strategic voting and it always ends up split between the Liberals and the Conservatives."

With files from Blue Sky