Sudbury·Analysis

Ontario election gave First Nations a voice at Queen's Park, but will Ford government hear it?

With the dust from the Ontario election settling and the Doug Ford era about to get underway, many Indigenous voters are left wondering just how much of an impact their ballots will have on the future of the province.

Election saw more Indigenous candidates and 2 new ridings with significant Indigenous populations

Liberal candidate Charles Fox, right, ran in the Algoma-Manitoulin riding against NDP incumbent Michael Mantha, left. (Erik White/CBC )

With the dust from the Ontario election settling and the Doug Ford era about to get underway, many Indigenous voters are left wondering just how much of an impact their ballots will have on the future of the province.

Turnout has, historically, been low among Indigenous people in federal and provincial elections for a number of reasons. Many members of First Nations don't feel engaged by politicians and the systems that operate outside their communities.

Indigenous representation is also generally very poor among candidates running for seats in Ottawa or at Queen's Park. As a result, voter apathy has long thrived in many Indigenous communities in Ontario.

But the 2018 provincial election campaign featured a notable increase in the number of Indigenous candidates running for the three major parties. The political blog Indigenous Politics counted 10 candidates who identified as Indigenous, in ridings from northwestern to eastern Ontario.

New ridings

A restructuring of the political map in Ontario also created potential for a greater Indigenous voice at Queen's Park. Two new ridings were formed in northern Ontario — Mushkegowuk-James Bay in the northeast and Keewitinoong in the northwest — each featuring significant Indigenous populations.

In fact, Kiiwetinoong is the only constituency in Ontario with a majority Indigenous population, at 68 per cent. People there elected the NDP's Sol Mamakwa of Kingfisher Lake First Nation with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The new provincial electoral map includes two new northern Ontario ridings with significant Indigenous populations: Kiiwetinoong and Mushkegowuk-James Bay. (Government of Ontario)

Mushkegowuk-James Bay also went to the NDP, with Guy Bourgouin, who identifies as ​Métis, taking that new seat.

Prior to Thursday's vote, only one candidate who identified as Indigenous had ever been elected as an MPP in Ontario: Peter North in the southwestern riding of Elgin in the 1990s.

While an official demographic breakdown of voter turnout isn't available yet, it's safe to assume that Indigenous voters played a role in those two ridings at least. First Nations leaders, meanwhile, are likely eager for more detailed information to see how the rest of the province played out.

As the campaign unfolded over the spring, chiefs at the regional and local levels expressed frustration that provincial candidates and party leaders were neglecting or glossing over Indigenous issues and communities.

'Complete invisibility and avoidance'

Ava Hill, chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, told CBC News earlier this week that she was "very disappointed that Indigenous rights or Indigenous issues haven't had a high priority on any of the debates."

Meanwhile, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said he heard "virtually nothing" on Indigenous issues during the campaign.

"It seemed to be that there was a complete invisibility and avoidance of the major issues facing First Nations in Ontario," he said.

Still, he encouraged First Nations people and leaders to continue engaging with provincial politics in the wake of the election.

Ava Hill, chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, front, said Indigenous issues have not been a priority for candidates in the Ontario election. She is shown with Deputy Chief Denise Stonefish and regional Chief Isadore Day. (CBC)

Whether that happens depends on how much of a priority Indigenous communities and the issues important to them are in Ford's majority Progressive Conservative government.

The federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau came to power in the fall of 2015, making significant promises to Indigenous communities, resulting in increased voter turnout in key areas with Indigenous populations.

Nearly three years later, however, the Trudeau government has come under fire from Indigenous leaders, activists, and grassroots community members for not living up to some of those promises, such as committing to establishing clean drinking water systems in First Nations.

Taking First Nations voices seriously

Until it becomes clear just how many Indigenous people voted, it's difficult to know just how engaged First Nations communities were in this election and if the Ford government will need to take their voices seriously.

With disappointment lingering in the wake of the last federal election, the momentum that has been built to get Indigenous voters to the polls risks grinding to a halt.

While the Ontario election resulted in more Indigenous candidates and an Indigenous presence at Queen's Park, that may be little solace to people who made the effort to vote if the province doesn't actually further engage First Nations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Waubgeshig Rice is a multi-platform journalist reporting for CBC's Ontario markets. Originally from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay, he's now based in the CBC Sudbury newsroom. You can email him at waubgeshig.rice@cbc.ca and follow him on Twitter @waub.

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