By Maurice Switzer
The good news for First Nations leaders anxious to see the Harper Conservatives swept out of office Oct. 19 is that the largest likely bloc of decided eligible voters in Canada resides within their million citizens-band members.
The bad news is that the Indigenous turnout in the last federal election was almost 20 per cent lower than that of most voters in Canada.
First Nations leaders are caught between a rock and Stephen Harper as they agonize over how best to motivate their constituents to help turf out a government that has been openly hostile to their concerns.
Many of the country's 633 Chiefs would like nothing better than to marshal their community members into a potent voting force that analysts say could decide the outcomes in as many as 51 federal ridings. They have seen the socio-economic gaps widen in the Harper years: students attending First Nations schools receive 30 per cent less federal funding than provincial schools provide; people in over 100 First Nations still lack safe supplies of potable water; and Ottawa spends over $100 million a year in legal fees challenging the rights of the Indigenous peoples whose interests they are sworn to protect under Canada's Constitution.
Leaders like National Chief Perry Bellegarde would be delighted if every Indigenous voter in Canada cast an Anything But Conservative ballot. Elections Canada even provided his organization, the Assembly of First Nations, almost half a million dollars to increase Native participation in the voting process.
So Canadians – and many First Nations citizens -- were bewildered when Bellegarde announced that he would not do what he was asking his constituents to consider doing – vote. A week later he announced that he had changed his mind and was now convinced that voting was a legitimate option for First Nations citizens.
Some First Nations leaders have tried to explain their non-voting stance as a matter of principle. They say participating in another nation's governance process erodes First Nations sovereignty. But Bellegarde's flip-flop indicates he is aware of a growing sentiment among Indigenous people that it is foolhardy not to use all the weapons at their disposal to battle injustice. Since 1960 First Nations have enjoyed an extra right – they can vote in federal elections as well as choose their own leaders. Scholar Alan Cairns said this made First Nations “Citizens Plus.”
Those who support voting participation argue that casting ballots does no more to tarnish Indigenous sovereignty than, say, carrying provincial driving licences and federal passports, and using government-issued Status Cards to get eight-percent tax exemptions in Wal-Mart. Furthermore, if voting did jeopardize the nation-to-nation relationship, why would leaders encourage their followers to consider doing it?
There is a more likely reason for leaders tiptoeing around the voting issue, and now flip-flopping on it: First Nations are currently largely reliant on federal financial largesse. This dependency will exist until Canada honours its treaty promises to share the land and its resource wealth, settles 800 outstanding land claims and enacts legislation that implements the Constitution's protection for inherent Indigenous rights to self-government.
Those same Canadians who stereotypically complain that “taxpayers' dollars” are being used as some sort of giant welfare cheque are electing governments who want this financial dependency to continue. Because with the money comes control.
The Conservatives actually launched their current election campaign three years ago when they pulled the rug out from under Indigenous representative organizations by launching a funding clawback that has now reached $60 million. The message to 633 First Nations was clear: “If we can do this to your regional chiefs and grand chiefs, imagine what we can do to you.”
In a 2011 paper titled “Silencing Dissent: The Conservative Record”, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said : “....exercise of the fundamental freedom of speech in Canada has been curbed and discouraged by a federal government increasingly intolerant of even the mildest criticism or dissent. Particularly affected have been organizations dependent on government funding which advocate for human rights and women’s equality. Their voices have been stifled, some completely silenced, by cuts to their budgets.
|”This blatant suppression of basic human rights by a government constitutionally responsible for guaranteeing their expression is unprecedented in Canada’s history.”
In the run-up to the Oct. 19 federal election, some First Nations leaders are acting like hostages who are allowed to phone family members, but with a gun to their heads, ready to discharge if they say the wrong thing about their captors.
They are trying to speak in a code they hope will achieve the desired outcome, without any harm coming to them or their next of kin.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He has served as director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations and the Union of Ontario Indians.
This article first appeared in the Sept. 10, 2015 edition of the Toronto Star.