Aboriginal people in Manitoba are just as politically engaged as other citizens, and they heavily favour the NDP. The trouble is, they often don't get out and vote on election day.
That's the upshot of new research by political scientist Chris Adams, a rare empirical look at a huge and potentially powerful voting bloc in Manitoba we know little about.
"When we think about voting and aboriginal people, we often think because they aren't voting in the same numbers as non-aboriginal people, they aren't engaged," said Adams. "In fact, we actually find there is little difference."
As part of a soon-to-be-released research on the last provincial election, a collection edited by University of Manitoba political scientists Andrea Rounce and Jared Wesley, Adams scrutinized five years of polling data gathered by Winnipeg's Probe Research that included 1,645 aboriginal respondents.
When asked whether they favoured a political party, 75 per cent of aboriginal people surveyed said they did, which matches the answer given by the general population. For First Nations living on reserve, the number is even higher.
Studying whether aboriginal people have a party preference is one measure of engagement -- the most basic one. Adams says many aboriginals in recent months have leapfrogged past that level and taken direct action as part of the Idle No More movement.
"It means that the political milieu of the county is energized by a segment of the population who doesn't normally vote," said Adams.
Not surprisingly, 58 per cent of aboriginals polled supported the NDP, compared with only 16 per cent who favoured the Progressive Conservatives.
Adams writes that aboriginal people make up a potentially powerful electoral force in at least one-third of Manitoba's 57 ridings. The far north and Winnipeg's North End are the obvious regions, but ridings such as Wolseley and Swan River also have significant numbers of aboriginal voters.
That is one secret of the NDP's success in Manitoba. The party aggressively targeted aboriginal voters in 2011, and key cabinet posts have been filled by First Nations leaders such as Deputy Premier Eric Robinson.
An internal party post-mortem prepared for the NDP after the 2011 election suggests the NDP's only real chance at capturing more than its current 37 seats involves targeting aboriginal voters in ridings such as Portage la Prairie and Lac du Bonnet.
The trouble is, voter turnout among aboriginal people, especially First Nations, is typically much lower than among other groups, though no specific data on aboriginal turnout in the 2011 election exists -- not in post-election reports done by Elections Manitoba or even in Adams' study.
Adams' says turnout is low in part because First Nations people only got the right to vote, at least in federal elections, in 1960. Before that, a First Nations person typically had to abandon their Indian status in order to vote.
So there is little tradition of voting in First Nations households, where parents would socialize children to vote in every election. For many, voting is linked to other government policies meant to assimilate indigenous people.
Data also show poor people tend not to vote, and aboriginal people are disproportionately poor, with other things than elections to think about, Adams said. Also, many Manitoba aboriginals live in "safe" seats such as Point Douglas or Kewatinook. Wesley's research on the 2011 provincial election shows voter turnout is much lower in such seats, where citizens don't think their ballot will change the outcome.
Aboriginal citizens speak
The Free Press stopped by Saturday's jingle dance at Portage and Main to speak to aboriginal people about voting.
It's a lot to do with our heritage, the way our people were treated over centuries, the biggest one being residential schools and being taken from our communities and treated as though we were second class people. They don't feel like their vote matters... If lot of our people got together and voted, that would give us that avenue for change, but a lot of our culture is about unity and balance, so that's where a lot of the teachings and our culture kind of clash with the way government works.
-- Kelly Brown, a cultural teacher with Head Start who voted in the last provincial election.
(Point Douglas MLA) Kevin Chief came up to me in the last election and asked if I would join his campaign. I said, 'Absolutely. If you answer me one question, my friend. What are you going to give to our people to help them participate in this society?' It's one thing...Then, we were at the Bell Tower one day with (North End activist) Michael Champagne and as a banner went up, I said to Kevin, 'Take a look. That's what we need to give to our people.' The banner said "Hope". If we want to participate in this society, we need hope the relationships will be righted, because right now we have no faith whatsoever in this country, in the way the governing bodies operate.
-- Ko'ona Cochrane, indigenous community facilitator in the North End.
I don't vote because look at the Harper government when they made the apology about residential schools. It was all lip service. After that, they didn't give enough money to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to continue the importance of what they were studying about what happened to our people. All the programming just ended after the apology. I lost faith in the process (of government)... Look at what their doing to our earth, all the pipelines and all the destruction. That's our government that's doing that, and not listening to the people.
-- Rose Hart, who worked as a statement-taker for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and who votes in reserve elections, but generally not federal or provincial ones.
Why do you think people don't vote? Join the conversation in the comments below.