'We seem to have completely fallen off the radar': An Indigenous take on the 2019 election

With election day fast approaching, First Nations, Métis and Inuit are not only deciding who to vote for, but whether to vote at all. 
From left to right: Tanya Talaga, newspaper columnist and writer, Brock Pitawanakwat, a university professor and program co-ordinator, and Rose LeMay, a newspaper columnist. (CBC/ Submitted by Brock Pitawanakwat, Submitted by Rose LeMay)

With election day fast approaching, First Nations, Métis and Inuit are not only deciding who to vote for, but whether to vote at all. 

Unreserved brought three panellists together to talk about issues affecting Indigenous people — and what kinds of promises politicians have made.

Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe columnist with the Toronto Star and an award-winning author. 

Brock Pitawanakwat is an Anishinaabe professor and program coordinator of Indigenous Studies at York University. He's also a research fellow with the Indigenous-led think tank the Yellowhead Institute. 

Rose LeMay is Tlingit and the CEO of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group. She writes a column for The Hill Times, a paper that covers federal political news in Canada. 

Host Rosanna Deerchild sat down with the panellists to discuss issues affecting Indigenous people, feeling discouraged after four years of a Liberal government, and whether Indigenous people should vote at all.

Tanya, you recently wrote a column where you said, "what a change four years can make." What did you mean by that?

Talaga: We seem to have completely fallen off the radar in this election. It's really quite incredible, too, what has happened over the last four years. We've seen so much go wrong with the Liberal promises — we've seen so many conflicts, we've seen broken promises time and time again.

We see laws that are passed that don't have enough of our voices and our opinions. I can point to the child welfare legislation as well that isn't properly funded, or the language legislation that was supposed to revitalize Indigenous languages.

There are so many half-baked promises ... and then we've got the entire scandal with Jody Wilson-Raybould. I don't even know where to to begin. You know you just kind of throw your hands up with the Liberals right now and say, 'Where are you?'

In the recent English language debate, the section dedicated to Indigenous issues largely turned into a discussion about pipelines. Are Indigenous issues getting enough attention?

LeMay: No. There should have been an Indigenous reporter [at the debate]. This was a time to actually highlight, for media and reconciliation, the involvement of Indigenous [people].

I'm kind of concerned that this whole topic turned into pipelines and that worries me around Canada's and Canadians' view of what role Indigenous [people] play right now in this country. 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, right, receives a gift from AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, left, in 2018. Trudeau said he understands First Nations leaders' sense of urgency to address some pressing social issues. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Talaga: It's interesting too that this is the most important issue for everyone, clearly. I mean, if you've got to come up with one Indigenous issue and they're talking about pipelines, that's a different way of seeing the world than we see it, right?

It is an issue for us — consent is an issue, consultation and all of those things.

But is this the number one issue that's on every Indigenous person's mind?

From left, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photograph before the federal leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 7, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Pitawanakwat: The difference that we had in the last election, is the Liberals, when the campaign got underway, they were in a relatively distant third place. And certainly, the expectation was not that they were about to form a majority government, that really happened during the campaign. 

I think leading up to the election Justin Trudeau was making promises that realistically he'd never intended, or never expected, to have to carry out as a prime minister.

Specifically, I'm thinking of how he promised the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action would be implemented. Similarly, he said his government would implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Just on those two promises alone, I think he set the bar very high for Indigenous people's expectations and that's part of the reason we saw unprecedented turnout among Indigenous voters

Tanya, you wrote a column for The Star in September called, "Why are federal political leaders so quiet on Indigenous concerns?" So, why are they?

Talaga: We haven't been anywhere with Indigenous issues as far as I can see in this election. If you click on the electronic platform on the Liberal website, it's completely different. 

We went from the most important relationship ever to ... about 11 pages in this 200-page platform document. It's really quite interesting for me to see how we've gone from 2015 and the time right before 2015 talking about all of these important issues facing our communities to not talking about them at all. 

Pitawanakwat: I think there has been a missed opportunity for many of the political parties to engage Indigenous peoples especially. There is some engagement, but I would say there's not a lot to inspire Indigenous peoples to come out to the polls.

The Greens and NDP, up to this point, have been fighting for distant third at best and really it seems to be a heavyweight match between the Conservatives and the Liberals — which, coincidentally, are the only two parties that have ever formed government in the history of the country.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Despite making the best cases for Indigenous people, Pitawanakwat says, neither party has ever formed government, which makes decision-making tough.

They have respectively terrible records in terms of Indigenous policies and their treatment of Indigenous peoples, nations and families. So I think that's part of the frustration for Indigenous peoples, if they're contemplating voting.

Speaking of contemplating voting, what are your thoughts on why some Indigenous voters might decide not to cast a ballot in the federal election?

LeMay: I think about Nunavut, where there are Inuit running as candidates. I think about how much discussion has been going on in that riding and how many Inuit will be voting and how much they care about the election.

That's the interesting part about politics in Indigenous communities is the immense amount of diversity that occurs from east to west, north to south from First Nations to Inuit to Métis on and off reserve.

Talaga: Until we see the system changing, until we have a completely different system of governance, I think that we have to get in there and try and do what we can from within. 

Pitawanakwat: There's lots of different ways for people to become politically-engaged. The emotional part, I think, is that there is a concern of Indigenous people being pulled too far into the settler ways of doing things.

I think that is part of the concern — once people start identifying as Canadian first as opposed to Indigenous of specific nations, then I think that that's where it can get emotional.

It goes to the core of people's identity — are you Anishinaabe? Are you Nehiyaw? Or are you Canadian? There's been so much conflict between our respective nations then to some extent, people are confronted with a choice: who are you — one of them, or are you one of us?

It leads to some really ... emotionally charged conversations or debates.

What are you watching for in the final days before the election?

LeMay: There is always some emotion going on for me and I would guess that for many First Nations, Inuit and Métis, politics is not just a theory, or for study, it's very much a day-to-day life experience. Can I maintain my identity today in a very colonized country?

Talaga: When we think of our families, when we go and we stand in that ballot box and try and figure out who [to vote for], I have to say, with this election, who's going to be the best of the bad?

The reality, though, is that we're not sending anybody back too, right? We're all here and we've got to, we've got to figure this out and then what's the way to do that? 

The colonial system hasn't worked. There needs to be a different system that's created and made. But for right now, until we achieve equity and difference, I think that we have to make that choice and we have to go to the ballot box and try and figure out which one won't do us the most harm.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Rose LeMay, Brock Pitawanakwat and Tanya Talaga.