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First Nations flock to the ballot box

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OTTAWA -- While fewer aboriginals will be sent to the House of Commons,
significantly more Native Canadians participated in the recent elections to
shape Canada's 39th Parliament.

As predicted by national polls, an expected Conservative victory played
itself out on Jan. 23; but the right-of-center party was less successful
than anticipated. With 124 out of 308 seats, the Tories will have to find
coalitions with the other parties in order to maintain its standing as the
governing party. The Liberals, with 103 seats, will step down from power
after 13 years while the Bloc Quebecois picked up 51 ridings, the New
Democrats 29 and one for the Independents.

There were many swing ridings across the country, where voters could have
reversed their preference among the four main parties. However, decisions
made within Indian country remained status quo.

In the 2004 elections, nine electoral districts with at least 10 percent
aboriginal constituents had the member of Parliament (MP) possessing a less
than 5 percent margin of victory. Yet, within this election the incumbent
party in these "Native" ridings won six times, while in the other three the
net result was the Liberals gaining one seat on the Conservatives.

Ultimately, what sent the Conservatives to victory was their ability to
gain seats in Canada's heavily populated eastern provinces of Quebec and
Ontario.

Two such seats were held by MPs of Metis descent (Native and European
heritage); Liberal David Smith, riding of Pontiac; and the Bloc Quebecois'
Bernard Cleary, Louis St. Laurent.

Also not returning is Liberal Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Dene First Nation
(Western Arctic), who was the first aboriginal woman voted into the House,
as she was upended after 17 years by an opposing New Democrat. Returning,
however, to Parliament is Liberal Nancy Karetak-Lindell, Inuit (Nunavut),
for her fourth term. She has been the only MP to represent Nunavut since
its inception.

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Two new faces going to the country's capital represent other vast ridings
in northern Canada. By just 106 votes, or 0.4 percent, Liberal Gary
Merasty, a Cree and the grand chief of the Prince Albert Grand Council,
edged out the Conservative incumbent, Jeremy Harrison, in Saskatchewan's
Churchill River district. However, Harrison has alleged voting
irregularities and it's likely that Elections Canada will investigate.

Another Liberal going to Ottawa is Tina Keeper, Cree, who defeated the
Independent incumbent in the Churchill riding of Manitoba.

Keeper is known for her six-year role as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police
officer in the Canadian television series "North of 60" during the 1990s.

While only four aboriginals were voted into the House of Commons (the
fourth was Liberal Todd Norman Russell, Metis, Labrador), efforts to
increase the Native vote proved fruitful. During previous federal
elections, voter participation by Canada's First Nations was significantly
behind the rest of the country, averaging as much as 15 percent less than
non-aboriginal voters.

Of 23 million eligible Canadians, 6 percent more cast their ballots than
the 2004 election, for a total of 64 percent participation nationwide.

Encouraging turnouts were also seen within those heavily populated
aboriginal seats. Of the five electoral districts that contain at least a
30 percent Native population, voting was up almost 25 percent on average.

Between the Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives, 17 aboriginals were
on the ballot -- and this number does not include other First Nations,
Metis or Inuit candidates for the Green Party, the Bloc Quebecois or those
running as Independents.

Another option for Native voters was the First Peoples National Party of
Canada, becoming for the first time in a federal election a party solely
dedicated to the concerns of aboriginals. Organized just last summer,
between the five candidates in three provinces the FPNP garnered 1,500
votes.