The other campaign: getting out the aboriginal vote

Katherine Walker column on aboriginal voting.

With only 3.8 per cent of the population, you could ask why would aboriginal issues even warrant a mention during an election campaign?

After all, we're not even close to being equal to the number of gun-toting Canadians. (About 26 per cent of Canadian households own guns, according to a recent estimate, which means NDP Leader Jack Layton may have secured more votes by bringing up the pressing issues of gun owners rather than mentioning aboriginal people in the televised debate.)   To borrow an oft-used phrase from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, let's be clear: when it comes down to elections, what matters are the numbers.

Large numbers translate into voting power and that is where aboriginal people, with their scattered populations, have trouble registering on the priority list.

Granted, aboriginal people do have an exceptionally high birthrate and will form a majority in Saskatchewan in about 40 years. But the impact of that is still unlikely to compare to Quebec's Quiet Revolution.

The obvious answer

So why would Layton mention aboriginal people at all during the debate, even if only in passing? Why would the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, feel perfectly justified in decrying the lack of focus on aboriginal issues in this election, as he has done since the beginning?   The obvious answer is because a great many Canadians want to see a better deal for aboriginal people, it's a question of social justice.

But does the support of "ordinary, working Canadians" translate into electoral clout?

Well, you'd have to say that sometimes it probably does. The Conservative government didn't rise in the House of Commons to apologize for residential schools until an opinion poll showed the majority of Canadians supported such a move.   Often, it seems that it's not a matter of doing what's right, it's a matter of doing what appears to the majority of Canadians to be right, and, at election time, appearances seem to be all that matter.   The latest opinion poll on the most important issues facing Canadians, however, fails to even mention aboriginal issues.

According to an Environics poll released last month, health care was No. 1, followed by the environment and the economy (this was before the big crash), and then a dozen other issues attracting support in the single digits. Aboriginal issues were not among them.

So, relying on the best intentions of the Canadian public to get our issues advanced is clearly not a winning approach. What to do?

Get out the vote

In the past, aboriginal people were largely left alone at election time. It was quietly assumed that they were better off voting for their chief and council or their Métis settlement leaders, and that was that.

This election is unique in the amount of effort being expended to get aboriginal people to vote on a national scale and it's not the government or the mainstream parties urging people to vote, it's aboriginal people themselves trying to convince other aboriginal people to cast their ballots     The Anishinabek Nation has led the way on its website. It's the first such website dedicated to getting aboriginal people to vote in a national election and it offers useful, strategic information such as the number of ridings where the First Peoples vote exceeded the margin of victory in the last election. (There were 22 ridings.)

The Assembly of First Nations also launched a campaign of its own, with the tagline "Vote 08, change can't wait!" It even announced a national day of political action to motivate aboriginal voters.   This election also sees more aboriginal candidates running than ever before, with 30 candidates in total, including five running for a newly created First Peoples National Party. The only party, in fact, without an aboriginal candidate is the Bloc Québécois.   Aboriginal people are definitely taking an unprecedented strategic role in this election, and it is already seems to be paying off in terms of political influence.

In the Parry Sound-Muskoka riding, which was won by 28 votes in 2006 by Conservative Tony Clement (the minister of health), it's estimated that 900 eligible voters in the riding are aboriginal people.

This fact, much publicized by the Anishinabek Nation, brought about a special forum with seven chiefs in the riding to discuss their issues with the candidates. That's how to get your issues on the agenda.