Ready or not, another federal election is just around the corner. Indigenous voter turnout was higher than ever in 2015, with some First Nations communities even running out of ballots. Will it be equalled in the election on October 21?
Since the Idle No More movement emerged in 2012, Indigenous issues have become increasingly prominent in Canadian politics. While Justin Trudeau coasted into power partly due to his hopeful talk about reconciliation and diversity, he is struggling to inspire the same progressive optimism four years later.
Before the brown-face scandal blew up last month, many were discouraged by Trudeau’s involvement in the SNC-Lavalin scandal and his perceived betrayal of then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Then there was his government’s controversial purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline – although some suggest the latter was motivated by a fear of litigation from China under an often-overlooked agreement made by the previous Stephen Harper government.
However, despite Trudeau’s scandals and broken promises, it’s hard to deny that his political mandate has delivered some progress for Indigenous rights and issues. And so, with the Liberals in a tight race with the Conservatives nationally, many will be persuaded to bite the bullet and vote strategically.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was booed by hundreds of First Nations chiefs last year when he failed to explain how his policies would differ from those of the deeply unpopular Harper government. He has done little since to change that opinion. The New Democrats and Greens offer the most progressive national policies but have struggled to gain significant momentum thus far.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has highlighted environmental sustainability as a primary issue, along with honouring the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The integration of UNDRIP into Canadian law would have happened with the adoption of NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill, C-262. But Conservatives held up the bill in the Senate, ensuring its death on the order paper when this session ended before the fall election. However, every other major party is promising to legislate the declaration if elected.
“This is our time to commit to action to save our planet and ourselves, to commit to ensure all children are equipped to build a prosperous future, and to commit to a promise that health, education, the economy and justice systems will work for everyone,” said Perry Bellegarde, the AFN’s National Chief.
With Saganash not seeking re-election after two terms, it’s difficult to guess who will win the Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou riding, which is Quebec’s largest by area. The diverse territory has very different objectives from Nunavik in the north to Abitibi in the south.
“Mr. Saganash’s legacy is huge – it’s a living legend for Indigenous Canadians,” said Jacline Rouleau, the NDP candidate for the riding in this election. “I am lucky to be able to benefit from his support and I intend to follow in his steps.”
Rouleau, the longtime mayor of Senneterre and a restaurateur of Ojibway Métis origin, told the Nation that Saganash facilitated her meetings with several communities. She said that New Democrats intend to build half a million affordable housing units over the next decade and create 300,000 quality jobs by promoting a clean energy transition.
“The NDP is the only party that really fights for you and owes nothing to big business,” Rouleau asserted. “Even as a second opposition, during the last term Romeo Saganash demonstrated that a member who works hard and has the best interests of the people at heart is the best choice for the people here.”
While the economy seems to be booming, she noted that the cost of living is continuing to rise – especially in the North – and many are struggling to make ends meet. The region’s Conservative candidate, Martin Ferron, also addressed the high price of groceries and proposed transport subsidies to make food more accessible.
“The situation that prevails right now is that this crucial issue of having access to quality food at a reasonable cost isn’t getting the coverage it deserves,” stated Ferron. “Many factors are responsible for this situation in the North, and as an MP, I will actively work to identify solutions and measures to reduce the price of basic products.”
The Malarctic mayor, who has worked in the mining and forestry sectors as well as a wildlife protection officer, has pledged to simplify mining projects but assured the Nation that First Nations authorization and environmental protections are always essential. Ferron also proposes establishing fixed constituency offices in both Val-d’Or and Chibougamau, along with a mobile office, to better understand the concerns of the vast riding.
“Where we come from is not a reason for a different opportunity in life,” said Ferron. “It’s time to work with a new partnership with First Nations, a real partnership. To respect the tradition, the language, the culture of each one.”
Among the riding’s other candidates, Liberal Isabelle Bergeron and Bloc Québécois Sylvie Bérubé are residents of Val-d’Or, working at the school board and the Ministry of Health and Social Services, respectively. Kiara Cabana-Whiteley is an Inuk representing the Green Party and Guillaume Lanouette is an underground miner representing the People’s Party.
None of the latter candidates responded to the Nation’s requests for interview.