First Nation voters can and must flex their ballots

This election, there is concerted national push to encourage First Nations citizens to ensure their names are on voters lists and then to get out and vote in Canada’s General Election on October 19.

There are proponents of this move for First Nations voters to have an impact on the outcome, riding by riding, where there are sufficient votes to make a substantial difference, regionally across the country. The Batchawana Bay First Nation near Sault Ste.. Marie is, for the first time ever, allowing a polling station in that community. This is a movement away from the traditionally held view by many in that community and other First Nation territories that the provincial and federal elections are “the business of others.”

But in this election, in Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia, the First Nations vote can determine the winner in a great many ridings.

The Idle No More protest of 2013-2014 may have served to ignite an interest in getting out the First Nations vote, but the movement is unprecedented on such a national scale.

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing is one riding where one First Nation political activist definitely made a difference to the outcome of the 2006 General Election in this riding, the last time the Liberals held the seat.

First Nations leaders also claim to have made the difference in AMK during the 2008 election when the Liberal stronghold that began in the 1930s was overturned. The riding was much smaller and called Algoma East through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, before the riding grew larger and was re-named Algoma-Manitoulin and even later took on its present incarnation as Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing and its status as the second largest riding in the country.

Through all of these changes, until 2008, this was Liberal country.

During the 2006 campaign, Liberal activist and Wikwemikong resident the late Tom Peltier was an early advocate of First Nations voting. He sensed the possibility of change and calculated the number of seats nationally wherein the indigenous vote could decide the outcome. He set about encouraging AMK First Nations citizens to vote and to vote Liberal.

Enough voters responded from the far North of the riding to Manitoulin Island that this identifiable vote, by poll, did indeed make the difference for former Liberal MP Brent St. Denis, allowing him to have his final electoral victory.

Mr. St. Denis’ victory was by 1,408 votes, a number more than accounted for by Liberal votes at First Nations polling places throughout AMK.

This was a lesson not lost on the New Democratic Party as, in recognition that the balance of electoral power lay with the First Nation vote in this riding, during the pre-campaign and then the campaign period for the 2008 election, NDP challenger Carol Hughes worked hard to make herself known to First Nations leaders in, at least, this part of the riding and the North Shore. The late NDP leader Jack Layton made appearances here on her behalf and in that election, her third as challenger, she emerged victorious and remains the incumbent today.

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing can be viewed as a model for First Nations leaders and national party political organizations, showing that the First Nation vote can carry a riding. Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde is right on the money in encouraging a higher voter turnout among his national constituency.

But there is one more reason to encourage a large First Nations voter turnout, one that trumps mere local electoral outcomes.

The relative importance of First Nation issues will, at some level, be considered directly in proportion to the interest the national community has demonstrated in the business of the nation. No matter who benefits from individual votes, it is the cumulative, Canada-wide poll that is noticed by politicians and by those who advise them.

Some communities and interest groups are constantly in the minds of politicians and policy is devised with their vote in mind.

It doesn’t ultimately matter who they voted for, but they voted and thus exert, as a collective, an influence on the political parties, particularly the one in power.

The October 19 vote counts for all of us, for a whole variety of reasons.

But in light of, for example, the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that considered the impact of residential schools on the First Nation population, the larger the voter turnout from this cadre, the quicker many of these recommendations will be considered for action by government, no matter which party takes the leadership role.