Donna Hopper/Soo Today
Rally the First Nation Vote's Tyrone Souliere: October vote 'is one of the most crucial elections that First Nations will ever face.'

Canada Election: Rallying the Vote, On and Off Reserve

Katie Hyslop, The Tyee

Indigenous people in Canada are far from apolitical or apathetic.

A legacy of several hundred years of colonialism—broken treaties, residential schools, unliveable houses on some reserves, missing and murdered women, high incarceration rates and low high school graduation rates—has resulted in political actions such as protests, hunger strikes, blockades and plenty of court cases.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people are perhaps more politically engaged now, during the Conservative government years, than at any other time in this country's history.

But their politics haven't extended to voting. Elections Canada research shows voter turnout on First Nations reserves averaged 44 percent for all federal elections between 2004 and 2011—17.4 percent below the Canadian average. The research shows similar voter turnout for off-reserve aboriginal people, too.

There are general factors that impact the indigenous vote, such as age, education and income level. But some Indigenous people choose to abstain from voting altogether, because either the federal government has failed to make a positive impact on their lives, or they don't consider Canada's government their own.

Now, there's a movement afoot to channel the frustration and anger that fuels protests into the casting of ballots on October 19. The Assembly of First Nations, which is non-partisan, has named 51 ridings where Indigenous voters could make a big difference.

RELATED: Register to Vote, Oust Conservative Government: AFN Chiefs to First Nations

There is grassroots activity happening too, with volunteer-led voting information groups like Rally the First Nation Vote reaching out to eligible voters in anticipation of what could be a historic election in Canada's indigenous history.

"Because this election is one of the most crucial elections that First Nations will ever face or have ever faced in terms of our relationship with Canada, people are looking at it differently," said the group's co-founder Tyrone Souliere.

Making sense of voting changes

The list of grievances a number of indigenous people have against the current Conservative government is long, including its refusal to hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, softening environmental protection laws, underfunding on-reserve education by $3,000 per child, and what is perceived as insufficient consultation on natural resource and environmental issues.

But the issue that inspired Tania Cameron to organize voting on-reserve was the Fair Elections Act—or "Unfair Elections Act" as she calls it, because of its strict identification requirements.

Introduced in February 2014 by then-minister for democratic reform Pierre Poilievre, the act requires that voters show two pieces of ID to cast a ballot. In 2007, the government amended the Elections Act to require voters show one piece of ID. Prior to that, registered voters didn't need to show ID to vote.

Today, at least one of the IDs must show a current street address. The once permissible voter information card is no longer accepted.

Some reserves don't have street addresses, so voters in those communities now have to find someone with proper ID to sign an oath corroborating the voter lives in that riding. Individuals may only attest for one other voter, though the band office can also fill out a form certifying a voter's address.

There are concerns that voters will misunderstand or be overwhelmed by the new ID requirements, and subsequently be turned away at the polls.

Cameron, a former federal NDP candidate in 2008 and 2011, started First Nations Rock the Vote in Kenora, Ontario. Her focus is reaching out to potential voters in the riding's 38 reserve communities, where she said the total voter turnout was just 46 percent in 2011.

When she's not at her full-time job, Cameron and volunteers are organizing on-reserve voter registration drives and ID clinics where they discuss the new requirements and potential solutions, including the form that allows the band office to certify that a voter lives on the reserve.

With information materials approved by Elections Canada, Cameron sends out info packages to interested community members to hold their own drives and clinics.

"This is totally grassroots," she said. "If you're willing to do this in your community, I'll do as much as I can to help you."

On the Cat Lake reserve, volunteers are going door-to-door to register people to vote. In the Onigaming reserve, registration is a family affair: "It's a father-daughter crew that every Wednesday have committed to sit at the band office and do this ID drive," Cameron said.

First Nations Rock the Vote has reached five communities so far; social media and mainstream media coverage are its only advertising. For Cameron, the effort will be a success if it results in even a 25 percent increase in voter turnout. "I would be so happy."

Federally, the Assembly of First Nations has been careful to remain non-partisan in its own voting awareness campaign, which is focused mainly on educating regional chiefs about increasing their area's First Nations voter turnout.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he will work with whoever gets elected on Oct. 19.

"But I'm also saying to our people to make informed choices in the ballot box," which to Bellegarde means researching candidates and party positions on aboriginal education, treaty rights and other issues important to Indigenous people.

'Politicians on notice'

Inspired by the impact that strategic voting could have on the election's outcome, Souliere helped start Rally the First Nation Vote.

The volunteer-run organization began with his Garden River reserve, but has since grown to encompass all of the Robinson Huron Treaty area, stretching across Southern Ontario from Lake Superior to the Quebec border.

"The purpose of Rally the First Nation Vote is to put the politicians on notice that First Nations people are organizing, and we're going to vote as a block for the one party that best represents treaty, charter and inherent rights in Parliament," Souliere said.

Since it's become clear that Indigenous voters are paying attention, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair are making "some very weighty statements in terms of how their governments will deal with First Nations," he said. "They have actually said they will have nation-to-nation relationships, and they will honour the treaties. That is historic."

Both Cameron and Souliere said there's little love for the Conservatives among the Indigenous people they talk to. "In terms of people who are on board with Rally the First Nation Vote, and organizations like us, we will not be voting for the Conservatives," Souliere said.

There are three Indigenous candidates running for the Conservatives: Rob Clarke, who is Cree, is hoping for a third straight term in the Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River riding in Saskatchewan; former environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, who is Inuit, is also aiming for a third turn as Nunavut's MP; and Floyd Roland, the former Northwest Territories premier and mayor of Inuvik, is Inuvialuit and running for the first time in the Northwest Territories.

In an email statement Roland said he has seen broad support for the Conservatives in the Northwest Territories.

"I firmly believe that Metis, Inuvialuit and First Nations peoples should have the same quality of life and the same opportunities as all other Canadians," read his statement. "That is why I am proud to be representing a Party that has continuously taken concrete steps to ensure all Canadians can share in Canada's economic prosperity."

Some Indigenous people won't be voting at all in October. Members of the Mohawk nation have come forward in recent weeks to explain that as a sovereign people they're not interested in voting for the leader of someone else's government—particularly one they feel has oppressed them for hundreds of years.

Souliere, whose Garden River First Nation also identifies as sovereign, doesn't believe that voting means giving up sovereignty. Instead, he views it as a "powerful weapon" to strike back against a government that's tried to erase the existence of his people.

Indigenous people got the vote in Canada over 50 years ago. "We view that as a tactical error in their war of attrition against us," Souliere said.

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