Vital First Nations' votes sought

Matt Ross
1/11/06

VANCOUVER -- With a federal election that's predicted to produce another
minority government, there's an active push to get every Canadian to
register their vote -- especially within the aboriginal community.

Upon the Nov. 28 dissolution of the latest Parliament, the ruling Liberal
Party controlled only 133 of Canada's 308 seats after less than 18 months
in power.

As a result of the non-confidence vote that brought down the House by the
three opposition parties (the right-of-center Conservatives, the
left-of-center New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois), Canada has entered
its first winter campaign in 25 years with an election set for Jan. 23.

Electoral districts divide the country's federal representation into one
district for approximately every 100,000 people. Twenty-five districts have
an aboriginal population of at least 10 percent, while seven of those
ridings count one-quarter of their populace as First Nation, Inuit or Metis
heritage.

Among all Native ridings, the winners in nine of them from the 2004
election counted a margin of victory of less than 5 percent. Because all
four federal parties with seats in Ottawa earned a seat within Indian
country, no party can take any constituency or political interest for
granted.

Overseeing this vote is Elections Canada, the nonpartisan independent
agency appointed by Parliament. As stated in its mandate, its first listed
responsibility is "making sure that all voters have access to the electoral
system."

This includes efforts to reach out to the 1 million Canadians -- 3 percent
of the country's population -- who claim their heritage as aboriginal. As
has been the practice since 1993, Elections Canada will set up elder and
youth programs to assist those voters at polling stations. This will be the
fifth general election to incorporate such practices.

In the last election, 48 electoral districts offered this guidance. Susan
Friend of Elections Canada in British Columbia says the popularity of this
program has almost tripled in size for this vote.

"Aboriginal community relations officers will be set up in 132 ridings and
there are also elders and youth [representatives] at polling stations to
assist, interpret and provide information to Aboriginal electors."

Eighteen months ago just 60.4 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot
for prime minister. That turnout, by percentage, was the lowest in more
than a century and reflects a trend of apathy toward Canadian politics by
the general populace. For Natives, especially on reserve, the number
exercising their voting rights is significantly lower.

Elections Canada studies have shown votes cast by aboriginals to be
one-sixth less than the non-Native population. Some of the reasons for this
pattern include the historical disenfranchisement that prevented First
Nations from voting until 1960 while today many Natives feel excluded from
federal politics because of geographic isolation and differences in the
social fabric between Ottawa and rural Canada.

Yet other studies have determined aboriginals will vote, in droves, when
politics means something locally. Citing band elections that have drawn
upwards of 90 percent participation, thereby showing First Nations are not
adverse to the political system, Elections Canada believes it can create a
more welcoming environment to attract aboriginal (and other socio-economic
groups) to the ballot box.

"What Elections Canada tries to do is send out as much information as
possible in as many venues as possible to make sure all people have as much
information as they need and to realize how easy it is to participate in
the democratic process," Friend said, citing pamphlets are available in 11
aboriginal languages.

As this election is occurring in the winter, which brings with it the
unpredictability of weather, Friend said there are multiple chances to cast
one's ballot before election day. This includes casting a vote by mail as
soon as the name of the candidate of the party is known.

While there are valid reasons for cynicism among First Nations electors,
under the parliamentary system of governance and the closely divided
political landscape of Ottawa, the importance the aboriginal vote cannot be
discounted. During a by-election in May 2005 in the riding of Labrador,
which is one-third aboriginal, a loss by the ruling Liberals would have
shifted the balance of power in the House of Commons to favor the toppling
the government several months earlier.

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