Canada is facing a critical moment in its history.
The Canadian dollar is at an 11-year low, and some say the country is in a recession. Oil producers in the tar sands are selling at a loss. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which had banked on turning the country into a sort of petrostate, is now mired in scandals. Author Stephen Marche's scathing critique of the Harper administration, entitled "The Closing of the Canadian Mind," recently became the most-read story in The New York Times.
Meanwhile, in oil-rich and notoriously conservative Alberta, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) swept to victory in the May provincial elections -- a seismic shift that Globe and Mail columnist Doug Sanders described in a tweet as akin to "Bernie Sanders becoming Texas governor by a big majority."
With national elections scheduled for Oct. 19, an unlikely voting bloc could play a key role in deciding the future direction of the country: Native people.
The Assembly of First Nations has identified 51 "ridings," or electoral districts, out of a total of 338 throughout the country, where the Native vote could swing the election. The AFN is a national advocacy organization that represents more than 900,000 status Indians (indigenous peoples governed under the Indian Act) hailing from 634 Native communities across Canada.
"[O]f course, that can make and mean the difference between a majority government and a minority government," AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told The Huffington Post. "Our issues matter, our voices matter and our vote counts."
Canada’s two minority parties, the left-wing New Democratic Party led by Tom Mulcair and the centrist Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau, have taken notice. They're counting on a strong turnout by Native voters to oust incumbent Harper's Conservative majority.
This all might be a bit surprising to Americans -- who have never had to think about the Native vote in national elections, and are accustomed to campaigns defined by a standoff between Democrats and Republicans, rather than a dance between three or four political parties. In the U.S., third parties rarely factor in national politics. In Canada, where three or four political parties are often embroiled in a tight race, any one political party could rarely, if ever, hope to win a popular majority of the vote.
This is partially because Canada uses a parliamentary system handed down from the United Kingdom. Instead of voting directly for prime minister, Canadians vote for the member of Parliament that will represent their riding in a first-past-the-post election. The party that wins the most ridings usually forms a government with its leader as prime minister.
Recent polls suggest that Harper’s Conservatives will likely lose their majority in October, and that the NDP will form a minority government with Tom Mulcair as prime minister.
But here's where it gets interesting.
The Idle No More Movement
The Harper years have been defined by unrest among the poorest of Canada’s poor: Native people.
Under the banner of the Idle No More Movement, the indigenous Canadian equivalent of Occupy Wall Street, Native people led marches and protests against Harper government policies that underfunded aboriginal social services and promoted nonconsensual natural resource development in territories claimed by indigenous nations. The movement shut down railways, malls and highways across Canada and sparked solidarity protests around the world.
"We’ve had the Idle No More Movement … because we are saying the status quo is not acceptable," said Bellegarde. "The poverty, the marginalization is not acceptable, and people want to see that change in our country."
The impact of Idle No More continues to reverberate in Native communities across Canada, and in the runup to national elections, Mulcair’s NDP and Trudeau’s Liberals have tried to turn Native frustrations with Harper into votes for their respective parties.
Both opposition leaders spoke at last month’s AFN general assembly, taking shots at the Conservatives and making promises to promote reconciliation in line with the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission June 2015 report on widespread abuses in residential schools that many Native people were forced to attend.
Ambitious Book Rocks Tight Race
Now, less than two months before the national elections, NDP member Charlie Angus is coming out with a new book, Children of the Broken Treaty. Angus ― the MP of the northern Ontario constituency of Timmins-James Bay and one of Maclean’s Magazine’s 25 most powerful Canadians in 2012 ― details the fight for aboriginal education rights in the Cree community of Attawapiskat. The community is covered by Treaty 9 in northern Ontario, which was signed by indigenous nations in 1905, relinquishing vast northern territories to Canada.
The community of Attawapiskat is familiar to many Canadians, and has become a symbol for the government’s neglect of Native people. It’s kind of like the Ferguson, Missouri, of Canada.
It’s notable that Angus published a book about Native education in Attawapiskat the same year the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report. It would be like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) writing a book about policing in Ferguson in the runup to the 2016 presidential elections.
Although Angus claims he didn’t write Children of the Broken Treaty to win the Native vote, the publication of a book by a prominent NDP leader suggests that Native issues and Native voters will be important to this campaign.
Children of the Broken Treaty focuses on the story of Shannen Koostachin, a young Cree woman who insisted upon her right to a decent education. Before Koostachin died in a car accident in 2010, she had became a well-known Canadian activist: TV personality George Stroumboulopoulos described her as one of “five teenage girls who kicked ass in history.” After her death, Canadian youth carried on her legacy through the Shannen’s Dream campaign, which Angus introduced as a motion to the House of Commons in 2011 to provide adequate funding to deliver equal education to Native communities. It passed unanimously in 2012.
Throughout the book, Angus makes the case that Canada has denied Native children their basic rights to education through a callous history of broken treaties, empty promises and bureaucratic neglect ― an ongoing reality that is central to Canadian history.
“Treaty 9 transferred some of the richest hydro, mineral and timber wealth in the world to the province and the federal government,” Angus explained to HuffPost. “At the signing of the treaty, Ontario is an economic backwater ― it’s nowheresville in terms of the economy. Yet, from the access to those resources, Ontario emerges as one of the economic powerhouses on the continent, while the treaty partners [First Nations] in Treaty 9 are some of the poorest, most underfunded failed communities in Canada.”
Angus emphasizes in his book that the promise of education was key to convincing Native communities to sign treaties that relinquished their lands to Canada. But those promises were never kept, and their legacy remains in the chronic underfunding of Native education by the Conservative government, he argues.
“We need to be talking about the systemic inequity in this country towards indigenous children and indigenous rights,” said Angus. “The Harper government is actually trying to set the colonial clock back.”
With the NDP holding a small lead, and Native issues continuing to make headlines, Children of the Broken Treaty could play a key role in the fight for the Native vote leading up to the elections.
Liberals Recruit Young Native Politician
Although the Liberals are not releasing any books from the campaign trail, they too are making a case for the aboriginal vote, and their first policy announcement focused on Native education.
In the riding of Winnipeg Centre -- which covers the poor inner city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, an area populated by an underclass of Native people -- the Liberals have nominated Robert Falcon-Ouellette, a Cree hailing from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, to challenge incumbent NDP MP Pat Martin.
Ouellette, 38, was somewhat of a Cinderella candidate in Winnipeg’s mayoral elections, coming out of nowhere to finish a respectable third by talking about issues of race and class facing the city’s indigenous poor.
Ouellette had opportunities to join other parties, but ultimately decided to run for the Liberals. He considered joining the NDP, but said he was deterred by the Manitoba provincial NDP’s troubled record of removing Native children from their communities and families through the provincial foster care system, in which Native children comprise nearly 90 percent of the system's 10,000 children. Native leaders and critics have compared the foster care crisis in Manitoba to the residential school system.
"The NDP [in Manitoba] has actually contributed to creating this situation of this large indigenous underclass with their child and family services system," Ouellette told HuffPost. "The reason I believe [this injustice] is perpetrated by a socialist government, the NDP -- a government that should be for the people -- is because they just take [the Native vote] for granted."
Ouellette says there are advantages to being positioned in the political center, and sees being a challenger as an advantage. "The Liberal Party is in the middle: it gives me the opportunity to talk to people on the right of the political spectrum and on the left of the political spectrum," Ouellette said. "This is why I love the Liberal Party: it’s a party that has to prove itself every day."
Voter ID Laws
But in their pursuit of the Native vote, both Ouellette and Trudeau’s Liberals and Angus and Mulcair’s NDP will have to overcome the new, so-called "Fair Election" voting law imposed by the Harper government. The legislation requires potential voters to provide proper identification that includes their address -- or to have another person with two forms of proper identification vouch for them. It also eliminates the practice of issuing voter information cards, which enabled potential voters to corroborate their address if they didn’t have the right ID.
The Conservative government claims the law will prevent voter fraud. However, critics say that the new more stringent rules are unnecessary, and will prevent students, the poor and indigenous people from voting -- much like the voter ID laws the Republican Party has implemented in the U.S.
For Native people in Canada, an Indian status card is sometimes their only form of identification. Status cards do not include an address, and many rural Indian reserves where Native people live do not demarcate streets and house numbers anyway.
Ouellette illustrates this problem when he discusses his door-to-door campaigning in inner-city Winnipeg. There, Native people are so poor they have no telephone or TV bills to prove their residency, no driver’s licenses or money to pay for government-issued IDs, and no credit cards or health papers, either. It all adds up to no opportunity to participate in elections -- when, for the first time, many are actually expressing an interest in voting.
"The Fair Elections Act is the bane of my existence," Ouellette said. "I think it’s just taking some of the things the Republican Party has been putting forward in the United States to disenfranchise voters and take away their constitutional rights."
For its part, the Conservative Party is pushing back against the bad name it has received from the opposition parties and many Native people. Against Angus’s research, which points to the Harper government’s underfunding of social services in Native communities, spokesman Stephen Lecce touted the party’s record on education and other issues in an email to HuffPost.
"Under Prime Minister Harper, we have taken action to improve the quality of life of Canadian First Nations by increasing investment in Aboriginal education by 25%," Lecce wrote. "We have built over 40 new schools for Aboriginals, gave women living on reserves the same matrimonial rights as all Canadians and enhanced skills training to ensure they take full advantage of Canada's economic prosperity."
He also defended the Fair Elections Act. "Our changes enable voting while protecting the integrity of the system," Lecce added. "These changes also reflect that almost 90% of Canadians believe it’s reasonable to require some form of identification in order to vote. Elections Canada now permits the use of over 40 different pieces of identification, including an Indian status card, band membership card or Métis card."
No polls currently have data that predicts how Native voters will cast their ballots in October. However, history can be instructive, and an analysis of Elections Canada data from 2011 shows the NDP was the favorite on Indian reserves, garnering 43 percent of the vote -- an eye-catching 12 points higher than the party's performance among the general population.
Native Visions For Canada
Despite these new bureaucratic obstacles, Bellegarde and the AFN are encouraging all Native people to get out and vote. "We have an opportunity on October 19th to make the difference between a majority and a minority government, to make sure that our issues and concerns are heard," he said. "We can’t be put to the side any longer. We need to work collectively together to close the gap that exists [between Native people and the rest of Canada], and it’s a great opportunity now to take advantage of that and bring about that change. Our people have a vision for Canada as well."
Angus agrees that now is the time to seize a historic moment for Canada and its indigenous peoples.
"We will never be the nation we were meant to be until we understand that the real wealth in our nation isn’t what’s in the ground; it’s in these underfunded, isolated reserves where these children are," he said. "When you look into their eyes and see the possibility of change and power -- these are our future leaders. And woe to us if we don’t recognize that we simply can’t afford to squander another generation."