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Canada Heads to Polls; Indigenous Leaders Rally Voters, Hope for Change

Canadians are heading to the polls to elect a new government today, and hopes are high among indigenous leaders that First Nations, Métis and Inuit will join them—and topple Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party from power.

With more indigenous candidates running than ever before—most of them on the Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) tickets—they have the potential to influence results in a number of ridings, or districts.

Just three days before Canada’s October 19 election, voter-registration organizer Cara Currie Hall stood on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery in front of dozens of people for one last attempt to rally possible voters.

“This is your weapon,” she said, raising an open hand. “You don’t need to be confrontational and you don’t need to protest. You go to the polls and you make an X. Throw your spear down.”

It was one of the final Rock the Indigenous Vote rallies that Hall and others have been holding across the country in hopes of—in her words—“indigenizing the election.”

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Supporters have included Wab Kinew and the recently crowned Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull, who has been using her platform to talk about issues such as Canada’s epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The voting power could be formidable.

“The indigenous population in Canada comprises about 4.5 percent of the total population. We have 1.2 million eligible indigenous voters,” Hall said. “So we are going to exercise our right and our responsibility to vote and when we do, we’re going to change how Parliament looks.”

Hall, a strategist from Canada who now lives in the U.S., was previously involved in mobilizing the Native American vote before Barack Obama was elected in 2009. In the end, she said, the indigenous vote came out for Obama four to one.

In Canada there has been consistently lower voter turnout among indigenous communities compared to the general population, according to Elections Canada. Research shows that numbers have fluctuated from year to year, though turnout on reserves has been particularly low at an average of 44 percent between 2004 and 2011, lagging about 17 percent behind the national average.

Elections Canada doesn’t yet have any numbers for this election, but Hall said she has noticed a big jump in engagement and excitement over voting.

“There was certainly an increase in aboriginal … people who voted in the [last U.S.] election, and it was really apparent,” Hall said. “And we’re seeing that today. We’re seeing how engaged aboriginal people are, and we’re also hearing the parties respond.”

RELATED: Canada Election: Rallying the Vote, On and Off Reserve

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called it one of the most important elections in Canadian history.

“We’re going to witness a change in this country,” he said. “We’ve witnessed the absolute hostility and adversarial posture of [Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s] government over the last ten years.”

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde agreed that the Conservatives’ platform—which includes promised investments in post-secondary education and limited follow-up on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action—doesn’t do enough for First Nations. The AFN released the statement targeting the Conservatives following a general list of four major parties’ “commitments of interest to First Nations.” NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau stand to win against Harper. 

Other indigenous leaders have similar critiques. Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, too, has urged voters to reject the country’s current Conservative policy. Former B.C. AFN regional chief Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is running for the Liberals in the Vancouver Granville riding, said she went into mainstream politics because she felt ignored by Canada.

“We worked hard as First Nations to forge thoughtful solutions and bring them forward to this current government,” she said. “And we sat down across from this current government and found that our voices weren’t being heard.”

Wilson-Raybould is one of more than 50 First Nations, Metis and Inuit candidates who are running in this election, according to the CBC, a number that’s up from 31 in 2011.

The majority of those candidates are running on NDP and Liberal tickets, but there are also about a dozen candidates between the Greens and Conservatives.

Regardless of what party indigenous people are voting or running for, Hall said, they are getting involved in droves, and she believes Canada “is just not going to be the same” after this election.

“We have potentially the ability to elect over 50 Members of Parliament, and the ability to impact over 100 ridings in the country,” she said. “There’s polling stations located right on reservations, right in native communities, they’re coming. This is the awakening.”