WINNIPEG, MANITOBA – Canada’s Aboriginal people, less than half of whom usually vote because many do not recognize the government’s sovereignty, could help decide the outcome of an unusually tight three-way federal election race in October.
Spurred by anger over disproportionately high rates of violence against indigenous women and poor living standards as well as resource development and environmental issues, Aboriginal voters are being urged by their national chief to vote.
Known as First Nations, indigenous Canadians want an inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered women. The ruling Conservative government has declined a national inquiry while the center-left Liberals and New Democrats support the idea.
“Clearly, there is an awakening happening,” pollster Bruce Cameron said. “If either the Liberals or (New Democrats) can tap into that, that will be a really interesting factor in this election.”
Grass-roots efforts to draw attention to issues and heavy social media interest point to potentially higher participation.
The Assembly of First Nations, the main Aboriginal political group, has identified 51, or 15 percent, of Canada’s 338 electoral districts as including enough Aboriginal voters to swing results.
A study by poll tracker ThreeHundredEight.com said that, based on 2011 results, the New Democrats stand to gain the most if Aboriginals vote in heavy numbers.
The New Democrats are running 23 Aboriginal candidates, 10 more than in 2011. Liberals have 17 Aboriginal candidates while the Conservatives have four, including a current Cabinet minister.
Low Aboriginal voter turnout has cultural roots, as some identify more with their First Nation communities than Canada.
“I think that’s your politics and I don’t involve myself in your politics. We have our own politics and law,” said Qeqmetgwe, an Aboriginal woman who was protesting outside a Conservative rally in British Columbia, urging people to vote against Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
New voter identification requirements may make it harder for Aboriginals to vote — addresses are now required but the main ID card for most indigenous people does not include that and many reserves do not have street addresses.
Last month, activist group Winnipeg Indigenous Rock the Vote spent hours helping people register for voting.
“No government is doing the work that needs to be done on missing and murdered indigenous women,” said Lisa Forbes, an Aboriginal woman who is part of Rock the Vote. “So making it an issue is very important.”
Police said last year 1,017 Aboriginal women had been murdered between 1980 and 2012, while another 108 are missing.