LONG PLAIN FIRST NATION -- Chief David Meeches has a message for federal, provincial and municipal politicians: "We matter."
Sitting in the boardroom of the Long Plain band office, surrounded by portraits of past chiefs, Meeches complains that First Nation voters aren't on the radar of mainstream politicians. And, he contends, that is a big reason why many aboriginal voters avoid the polls on election day -- unless it's a vote for band chief and council.
In the 2007 provincial election, voter turnout amongst Long Plain residents stood at just under 21 per cent. Fewer than 100 of 468 registered voters in the community, 15 kilometres south of the junction of the Trans-Canada and Yellowhead highways, cast a ballot. Long Plain has a total population of 3,800, with about 2,000 living on the reserve. Most of the rest live in Brandon, Winnipeg and nearby Portage la Prairie.
Long Plain wasn't the only First Nation with a low turnout in the last provincial election. Sagkeeng First Nation, in the eastern Manitoba constituency of Lac du Bonnet, mustered only 22 per cent of its registered voters (although Peguis First Nation, the province's most populous First Nation, had a 37 per cent turnout), according to Elections Manitoba data.
In analysing provincial voter turnout, University of Manitoba political scientist Jared Wesley has found that constituencies with higher proportions of aboriginal residents tend to have lower participation rates.
"It matters not whether the local race is close; if the constituency has a high proportion of aboriginal peoples, it is very likely to feature low voter turnout," he wrote recently.
Wesley's findings expand upon other studies which suggest that aboriginal Canadians are among the least engaged in electoral politics. This year, leading to the Oct. 4 provincial election, the Free Press will examine aboriginal voter engagement, paying special attention to the folks at Long Plain First Nation.
In interviews with residents last fall, it was clear that some didn't even know that they could vote in a provincial election.
"I didn't think we had to," said 33-year-old Farren Sutherland, when asked if he had participated in the 2007 vote that brought the provincial NDP its third consecutive majority government.
Sutherland later admitted that he had never voted in a provincial or federal election -- only in band elections. He said he thought that more band members would vote in provincial elections if they knew they could. "I don't think they knew if they could or not, the majority of them. That's why I never voted -- because I never thought it applied for us too."
Several other Long Plain residents said they didn't recall seeing any politicians -- or campaign signs -- in 2007. "Not too many politicians come on the reserve at all," said John Richard outside the community's modern grocery store. He also did not vote in the last provincial election.
On the other hand, Robert Francis, a DJ at the local 'Rez Radio' (101.7 FM) said he and most of his family do vote in provincial elections. "There's a saying that if you don't vote you can't complain, so it's more like that. This way I can complain," he said with a laugh.
In 2007, Long Plain was located in the staunchly Conservative constituency of Carman, where Blaine Pedersen, with 3,845 votes, trounced the NDP's Sharon Sadowy, who garnered 1,440. Of the 98 votes cast at Long Plain, Sadowy received 65 while Liberal candidate Don Oldcorn got 25. Pedersen received just eight.
Meeches, however, rejects the suggestion that many Long Plain residents may have refused to vote because the result was a foregone conclusion in what is considered a safe Tory constituency. "I think, generally speaking, they don't vote, not because they feel they can't make a difference. They don't vote because they're not engaged," he said.
Meeches, who once served as an official agent for a federal Liberal candidate in Portage Lisgar, doesn't single out any particular party for blame. His criticism is directed at mainstream politicians in general.
He said they seldom come calling between elections. And even during an election campaign they often limit their visits to the First Nation leadership -- the chief and council. "That's like going to Portage la Prairie and just talking to the mayor and assuming that's enough," he said.
Pedersen, the Carman MLA, said he's available to all his constituents, but his riding -- at 100 kilometres by 160 kilometres -- is large. He said other communities would also like him to visit more often. "I'm available to all my constituents and it is very difficult to get to all corners of my constituency, to every community. But I try very hard," he said in a mid-December interview. He said that he had last travelled to Long Plain within the past month.
It's been suggested that aboriginal voter turnout in federal and provincial elections is low in part because First Nations people have only been given the franchise comparatively recently and there is no long history within families of voting in these elections. Meeches agreed that may be a factor, but as generations pass it should be less of one.
He noted that about 1,200 people out of a potential 2,400 Long Plain voters (on- and off-reserve) voted in the last election for chief and council. "They see the chief and council election process as something that affects their lives," Meeches said. "What they're not clearly understanding is how municipal, provincial and federal elections affect their lives. There's an educational process that needs to occur."
Meanwhile, with electoral boundary redistribution, Long Plain will become part of Portage la Prairie constituency in the next provincial election. That may spur more interest in provincial politics among Long Plain residents as the First Nation owns property there and the city is home to a number of band members.