Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

It was an awkward moment on the campaign trail.

At an event for Canada’s New Democratic Party, two top Indigenous leaders endorsed a candidate for the governing Liberal Party instead.

Not only was the move by Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Grand Chief Garrison Settee of the Manitoba Keewatowini Okimakinak to endorse an opposition candidate at a New Democratic Party event unusual, so was their decision to endorse at all.

The endorsement highlighted a key moment in Canada’s Sept. 20 snap election: competition for the Indigenous vote is real. And so are the record-number of Indigenous candidates on the ballot.

“That is definitely something new,” said Chadwick Cowie, Michi-Saagiig Niishnaabeg from the community of Hiawatha First Nation, a faculty lecturer and researcher in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal who specializes in Indigenous, Canadian and comparative politics. 

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of the Manitoba Keewatowini Okimakinak, shown here, joined with Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to endorse Liberal Party candidate Shirley Robinson, Cree,  at an event for Canada’s New Democratic Party. Canada's upcoming snap election called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sept. 20, 2021 has focused attention on Indigenous candidates and the Indigenous vote. (Photo courtesy of Garrison Settee)

Indigenous organizations like MKO have tended to stay out of campaigning for one side or the other “because of funding, or that it will cause sour relations with whoever wins the riding (district) or wins the government,” he told Indian Country Today.

This year is different. With the nation’s leadership at stake and a historic number of Indigenous candidates on the ballot, Indigenous organizations and First Nations chiefs are openly campaigning for political parties amid a widespread push to get out the Indigenous votes.

Power move

The so-called “snap” election is set for Monday, Sept. 20, less than six weeks after it was called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and just 18 months into his second four-year term. In Canada, the prime minister has the power to call an election at any time.

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It appears to have been a power move by Trudeau, whose governing Liberal Party was up in the polls. The Liberals currently rule with a minority government, meaning they have to share power with at least one opposition party. Trudeau gambled that if he called the election early, the Liberals could win a majority.

The Canadian House of Commons has 338 seats representing the various ridings (voting regions) of the country. To win a majority, a party must win 170 seats; anything less means the ruling party will need support from one or more of the opposition parties.

Trudeau swept to power in 2015, winning a solid 177-seat majority, but those heady days are long gone. The Liberals won the 2019 election with 157 seats but lost the popular vote to the Conservatives.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Friday, June 25, 2021. Leaders of Indigenous groups in Canada say investigators have found more than 600 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school for Indigenous children in Saskatchewan. Trudeau said Friday he has spoken to Francis personally "to impress upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil." (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

Now, with dislike for Trudeau and the unnecessary election driving online and real-life anger, the best-case scenario for Trudeau’s Liberals appears to be another minority government.

Canada operates with a multi-party system. Although the Liberals and the Conservatives are the only two parties ever elected to govern, modern elections often result in a minority government, which can shift the balance of power to the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois. In addition to fringe parties and independents sprinkled about, the election has caught one party unprepared -- the Green Party is in disarray, with infighting leading to lawsuits and the loss of one of their three members of Parliament to the Liberals.

Indigenous candidates

With a minority government likely and votes split in numerous ways, Indigenous candidates and Indigenous voters have become more important, with the competition for those votes more intense.

According to The Canadian Press, 77 candidates in the upcoming election identify as Indigenous, up from 62 in the last election, when 11 were elected to Parliament. In the last Parliament, 13 votes determined the balance of power.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak, known as MKO, is the organization that represents the northern First Nations in Manitoba who make up much of the Indigenous population in the district held by the National Democratic Party for 36 of the last 42 years.

At its 40th assembly on Aug. 31, MKO adopted two resolutions — the first endorsing Liberal candidate Shirley Robinson, Cree, and the second to encourage their members to support her candidacy. Incumbent Niki Ashton, who is non-Native, of the National Democratic Party, has held the seat for 13 years.

“Trudeau has forwarded many things that are beneficial to First Nations,” Settee, the MKO grand chief, said to Indian Country Today. “For example, during the vaccine rollout, First Nations were given priority because of the science and the medicine behind that. The provincial Conservatives wanted to keep us marginalized but the government pushed to get us vaccinated first because we were among the most vulnerable.”

Political expert Cowie has documented increased participation in the Canadian democratic process by Indigenous peoples, but notes an increase in candidates does not always translate into more Indigenous voices in Parliament.

“You can see that after the Niki Ashton win since 2008 it hasn’t mattered that an Indigenous candidate runs up against her,” he said. “However, this election is different, because you have the organizations representing the communities there endorsing the Liberal candidate.”

Settee said that having a non-Indigenous voice representing the region is not working.

“It is better to have someone who has lived that experience, having grown up in that impoverished community without the amenities they have in the rest of Canada,” he said. “It is better to have someone articulate that from a lived experience. It is time for Indigenous peoples to step up and speak for ourselves.”

Five hundred miles to the south of the province, National Democratic Party incumbent Leah Gazan, Lakota, defends her party’s record on Indigenous issues. Stepping out of a loud restaurant in Winnipeg’s core with the campaign in full swing, she is confident about her party’s record.

Leah Gazan, Lakota, a member of the Canadian Parliament from the National Democratic Party, said her party has held the Canadian government accountable for lack of action on Indigenous issues. A record number of Indigenous candidates is running for Parliament in the Sept. 20, 2021 snap election, focusing new attention on Indigenous issues and voters. (Photo courtesy of National Democratic Party)

Among those is adoption of Bill C-15, the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, known as UNDRIP, on June 16, 2021.

“The NDP put forward Bill C-262 by former Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, Cree, that achieved the full adoption and implementation of UNDRIP,” Gazan said. “In the last Parliament, it was the NDP with Romeo Saganash leading the charge travelling across the country fighting for the fundamental human rights of Indigenous Peoples. Bill C-15 was passed but it was based on Romeo Saganash’s bill C-262.”

Gazan said the NDP has held the government accountable for lack of action on other Indigenous rights.

“We’ve been on the front lines trying to push the current government to respect the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling to stop racial discriminating against First Nations children on reserve,” she said. “When I pushed the government to recognize that what happened in residential schools as a genocide under the [United Nations] Convention on Genocide they refused to do that. It is only the NDP who is pushing for that recognition.”

Getting out the vote

Perhaps more than ever, getting out the vote will be key to the election, and Indigenous organizations are pushing to turn out Indigenous voters.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada, for example, has launched a campaign of its own, called “We’re done asking. We’re voting,” to get Indigenous women across the nation registered and ready to vote Sept. 20.

“We decided to do quite a significant campaign this time,” association chief executive Lynne Groulx told Indian Country Today. “We could potentially impact the results of the vote if we all got out and got our vote in there.”

NWAC is not endorsing any party or candidates, although Groulx supports voting for Indigenous candidates.

“It is not easy for an Indigenous person to get in there and participate at the level because there is still systemic racism,” she said.

In the Northern Territory of Nunuvut, the candidates have to speak with an Indigenous voice. Pat Angnakak, a Liberal, is from the territory and is fluent in Inuktitut. She is challenging two Inuk people for the seat, Lori Idlout of the National Democratic Party and Conservative Laura Mackenzie.

But a large Indigenous population is no guarantee of representation.

Cowie points to the riding of Fort McMurray-Cold Lake, Alberta, which despite having a large Indigenous population of Cree, Dene and Metis has been dominated for decades by Conservative candidates representing the oil industry and workers. Standing up for Indigenous rights is not a winning formula in a voting district where the tar sands remain the largest economic driver and all candidates campaign as voices in support of the energy sector. In the last election the Conservative winner garnered more than 80 percent of the vote.

Will Indigenous votes carry the day?

The early election has hurt Trudeau and the Liberal Party, however; they lost their lead in the polls soon after the election was called.

Many believe the election will end up as it did last time, with the Liberals holding a minority government. After the 2019 election, the Liberals relied on at least 13 votes from opposition parties to pass any legislation or budgets. That support was usually provided by the New Democratic Party, which is more socialist than the left-leaning Liberals. It is precisely because they are on the same side of the political spectrum that the battle for the seats in those electoral regions such as Churchill-Keewatinook and Winnipeg Centre are so intense.

It is going to be a fight to the finish in the Canadian Snap Election and Indigenous candidates and voters are right in the middle of it.

One question remains to be answered, however: The Indigenous vote has the power to win ridings but does it have the power to win elections? The results will be seen on election night.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated. Chadwick Cowie is a lecturer and researcher in the political science department at McGill University in Montreal and a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Alberta. Cowie is Michi-Saagiig Niishnaabeg from the community of Hiawatha First Nation. His university connections and tribal affiliation were incorrect in an earlier version of the story. 

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