Ten days before the October 19 federal election, a group of about 100 First Nations gathered in Montreal’s Cabot Square, where they underlined the importance of voting and highlighted issues facing Indigenous people.
The group then marched down Ste-Catherine Street, waving plaques and banners stressing the high suicide rates of Aboriginal youth and calling for an inquest into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Despite the seriousness of the event, the mood was festive and upbeat. With polls showing Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative Party trailing, many were eagerly anticipating a change in government, to one more sympathetic to First Nations concerns.
The rally was organized by the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador and Quebec Native Women. It aimed to encourage Indigenous people to exercise their right to vote, while pressuring candidates to dedicate more attention to First Nations issues – which were being overshadowed by contentious debates over the niqab and an international trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Efforts like this across the country appear to have had an impact. A record 56 Native candidates stood for election, and 10 were elected, also a record. Of them, eight are Liberals and two are New Democrats, including Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou MP Romeo Saganash. Many reserve-based polling stations reported high voter turnouts, with some even running out of ballots.
“It was an awesome ride,” Winnipeg-based Indigenous Rock the Vote organizer Sylvia Boudreau told the CBC October 19, after the election results showed a Liberal majority. She and others worked tirelessly on Winnipeg streets and on Manitoba reserves convincing Indigenous people to get out to the polls and vote for change.
In an impassioned speech to the marchers in Montreal, Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador, lamented how Aboriginal issues had become “afterthought” in the election.
He emphasized that First Nations health care, living conditions and land claims are important issues that merit more discussion.
Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day questioned why suicide rates are five times higher for Aboriginals than non-Aboriginals and how life expectancy for Aboriginal people is 6-7 years shorter than for the non-Aboriginal population.
“I go up north, and kids are dying,” said Day. “This is unacceptable.”
The message of those in attendance was clear – this election was about getting Harper out. It’s time to reset relationships between the federal government and Canada’s First Peoples.
There was a strong presence of Mohawks at the rally, which runs against their traditional practice of eschewing federal and provincial elections. For Ruth and Mike Loft, who live in Kahnawake, the stakes were simply too high not to be heard.
“It’s not our culture to vote. But this time it seems very important,” said Ruth Loft.
Her husband seconded the observation. Mike Loft said Harper’s tenure has been marked by an unwillingness to engage with First Nations. Harper, he said, treated First Nations in a disrespectful manner.
“There has been no discussions going on, no communication between the government and the nations,” said Mike Loft. “Since Harper was elected there has been no significant cooperation. That’s a problem, because everything flows from a good relationship.”
Verna Polson, the Grand Chief of the Algonquin-Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council from Ontario, said that First Nations need more federal money for education.
“Things are expensive for students,” said Polson.
For Viviane Michel, of Quebec Native Women, the rally was also about showing a First Nations presence in order to build a better relationship with the next government. That’s something she has high hopes of the incoming Liberal government of prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau, who has vowed to hold a major public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, with a budget of $40 million.