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Idle No More protests won't work, but voting might

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BRANDON -- If the objective of the Idle No More movement is improving the lives of Canada's indigenous peoples, its supporters need not starve themselves, and they don't have to block roads, bridges and railroads. All they have to do is vote.

That is the conclusion that can be extrapolated from a pair of studies commissioned by Elections Canada following the 2011 federal election.

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In a study titled Federal Voter Turnout in First Nations Reserves (2004-2011), Jean-Sébastien Bargiel found 114 of the 308 electoral districts contained polls on First Nations reserves in the 2011 election, but just 44.8 per cent of registered on-reserve voters voted in that election, compared with 61.1 per cent nationally.

While just 37.6 per cent of registered on-reserve voters voted in Manitoba, the percentages were even lower in Alberta (32.8), Newfoundland and Labrador (31.3) and Quebec (30.2).

In a study titled Aboriginal Electoral Participation in Canada, professors Patrick Fournier and Peter John Loewen concluded, "The voter turnout of aboriginal Canadians lags that of their non-aboriginal counterparts... That participation trails markedly among an entire subset of the Canadian population is a matter of great concern."

"Aboriginal communities are, on average, much younger than their non-aboriginal counterparts," they add. "Accordingly, programs that successfully increase electoral participation among young aboriginals will equip one of Canada's fastest-growing populations for much greater political influence in the future."

Canada's aboriginal leadership should pay special attention to that last sentence because it points to the potential power of the aboriginal vote.

According to my own analysis of the 2011 election data, there are dozens of federal ridings where on-reserve and urban aboriginals could have played a decisive role in determining who was elected as MP. Aboriginals are not playing that important role, however, because too few of them vote.

Beyond that, those who do vote lose the collective power of aboriginal voters by voting independently rather than strategically, thus cancelling each others' votes instead of focusing them on particular candidates.

It is impossible to escape the irony of this analysis. Aboriginal leaders and the Idle No More movement complain bitterly about the Harper government's treatment of aboriginals, but the voting data suggests they might have helped to prevent Stephen Harper from ever becoming prime minister if they had voted in sufficient numbers in the past three elections. They certainly could have prevented him from achieving his majority government in 2011.

Taking the point a step further, the power aboriginals could have exercised over the outcome of the past three federal elections pales in comparison to the influence the fast-growing aboriginal population could wield in the future.

With the fractured, multi-party reality of Canadian politics, an indigenous peoples' party could hold considerable sway over the composition and direction of the federal government for the next several decades.

Earlier this week, columnist Paul Adams suggested Canada follow New Zealand's example by allocating a number of seats in the House of Commons to aboriginals. He argued that "having their own MPs would give Canada's first peoples an opportunity to vote for representatives who hold their concerns as a priority and who could speak for them with a degree of independence and authority that no one now has."

I disagree. While it is important for the concerns of aboriginal Canadians to be voiced in the House of Commons, the option of race-based democracy seems reckless, given that the problem of under-representation is rooted in under-participation and can be solved by a well-executed get-out-the-vote plan directed at aboriginals living on and off reserves.

Instead of blocking highways, the Idle No More movement's leaders should be focused on the 2015 election.

They have organized multiple simultaneous events across the country, involving thousands of participants -- and they have done it in the dead of winter. With that record of success, convincing aboriginal Canadians to walk into a ballot booth once every four years should be far easier.

They have raised awareness of the plight of aboriginal Canadians and energized the aboriginal population. Blockades and hunger strikes won't change the Harper government's aboriginal agenda. Votes will.

Deveryn Ross is a political

commentator living in Brandon

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2013 A15

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