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. A 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 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 a national election scheduled for Oct. 19 fast approaching, an unlikely voting bloc – native people – could play a key role in deciding the future direction of the country.
The Assembly of First Nations, which represents more than 900,000 status Indians hailing from 634 native communities across Canada, has identified 51 ridings where the native vote could swing the election.
"[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."
Both the poll-leading New Democratic Party led by Tom Mulcair and the Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau have taken notice and are counting on a strong turnout by native voters to oust incumbent Harper's Conservative majority.
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" — native people led marches and protests against Harper government policies that underfunded aboriginal social services and promoted nonconsensual natural resource developments in territories claimed by First 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," Bellegarde said. "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 run-up to the election, 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 report released this year on widespread abuses in residential schools that many native people were forced to attend. The last such school was closed in 1996.
Ambitious Book Rocks Tight Race
Now — less than two months before the election — Charlie Angus, NDP MP for the Northern Ontario constituency of Timmins–James Bay and identified by Maclean’s magazine as one of the 25 most powerful Canadians in 2012, is coming out with a new book, Children of the Broken Treaty. The book details the fight for aboriginal education rights in the Cree community of Attawapiskat, which is covered by Treaty 9 in Northern Ontario.
Although Angus said that winning the native vote was not his intention with Children of the Broken Treaty, the publication of a book by a prominent NDP member suggests that native issues and native voters will be important to this campaign.
The book focuses on 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 became a well-known activist in Canada and was described by TV personality George Stroumboulopoulos 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. It passed unanimously in 2012.
Throughout the book, Angus makes the compelling 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 told the Huffington Post. "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."
In the book, Angus emphasizes that the promise of education was key to persuading native communities to sign treaties relinquishing their lands to Canada. Those promises were never kept, and their legacy remains today in the government cutbacks to aboriginal social services pursued by the Conservative government, according to Angus.
"We need to be talking about the systemic inequity in this country towards indigenous children and indigenous rights," Angus said. "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 election.
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 ultimately could not because of the Manitoba provincial NDP’s troubled record of removing native children from their communities and families through Manitoba’s foster care system. Nearly 90 percent of the 10,000 children in care are native, prompting native leaders and critics to compare it to the dark record of the now defunct 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 The Huffington Post. "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."
Voter ID Laws
In their pursuit of the native vote, Ouellette and Trudeau’s Liberals and Angus and Mulcair’s NDP will have to overcome so-called "Fair Election" voting laws imposed by the Harper government. The new law requires voters to provide proper identification that includes an address — or to be vouched for by a voter with two forms of proper identification — and eliminates the practice of allowing voter information cards to be used to corroborate the address of a voter who lacked the right ID.
The Conservative government insists the law will prevent voter fraud, but critics say that the stringent new rules are unnecessary and will prevent students, the poor and indigenous people from voting, much like similar voter ID laws implemented by the Republican Party in the United States.
Native people in Canada often possess only an Indian status card as their form of identification. Status cards do not not include an address, and many rural Indian reserves where native people live do not demarcate streets and house numbers anyway.
Ouellette illustrates the problem well when he discusses going door to door while campaigning in Winnipeg Centre, where native people are so poor that they don’t have a telephone or TV bill to prove their residency. No driver’s licences or money to pay for government-issued IDs. 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 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 the Huffington Post.
"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.
Despite these new bureaucratic obstacles, Bellegarde and the AFN are encouraging all native people to get out and vote.
"We have an opportunity on Oct. 19 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."
Julian Brave Noisecat is the Native Issues Fellow at The Huffington Post.