For the most part, First Nations issues received little attention in this campaign cycle. Candidates focused largely on Canada’s middle class and inconsequential, inflammatory topics, like whether to allow a woman to wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony.
No questions were asked on Aboriginal topics over the five leaders’ debates, not one.
That said, this election has been historic for Canada’s First People. Ten Aboriginal MPs will be sitting in Ottawa, including NDP incumbent Romeo Saganash. The Cree from Waswanipi is a symbol of hope and resilience for many, a residential-school survivor who has scaled the ranks of federal politics.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde urged First Nations to vote throughout the campaign. He identified some 51 ridings in which the Aboriginal vote could swing the election. And it seems like his message resonated. APTN reported six communities ran out of ballots due to high voter turnout. (Ballots, according to the reports, were quickly replenished.)
That suggests another important development, that a long-held belief that says sovereignty means not taking part in federal politics has lost its force. Indeed, as written about in this issue, Mohawk flags flew prominently during a get-out-the-vote rally organized by the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec. More and more Aboriginal people are recognizing the importance of voting. “This election is just too important not to vote. We need a new government,” one Mohawk from Kahnawake told the Nation.
After the new Liberal government of Prime Minister-Designate Justin Trudeau is sworn in on November 4, Stephen Harper will no longer be the leader of our country. That alone is something to celebrate.
Harper’s inaction on missing and murdered Aboriginal women was appalling. His zeal for mandatory minimum sentences placed many marginalized Aboriginal people behind bars. His decision to gut environmental regulations that hindered energy developments while ignoring housing and health crises in many First Nations communities helped fire up the Idle No More Movement.
When history is written, Harper will be given the distinction of being one of Canada’s worst modern leaders, especially when it comes to Aboriginal relations.
Trudeau rode a groundswell of frustration to victory. And he made plenty of promises, especially to First Nations, during his campaign.
It will now be up to us to hold him to them. He already vowed to go forward with an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women during his victory speech. But his other promises – like the $2.6 billion increase in new funding over four years, ending boil-water advisories on reserves in five years, and implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – will be challenging to implement.
Challenging, but necessary. Let’s make sure he follows through.