LONG PLAIN FIRST NATION -- With more than 1,000 potential voters, this southern Manitoba First Nation could conceivably hold the key to victory in Portage la Prairie constituency -- for the candidate who courts it.
But with a little over two weeks to voting day, no politician has yet come calling, not the NDP candidate, who came within 409 votes of wresting the seat from the Conservatives in 2007, not the Tory hopeful, who is treating Portage like a swing riding, nor the Liberal.
There are no election campaign signs to be found here. And the community's Rez Radio, a 30-watt FM station with a constituency-wide reach, has yet to air a single campaign ad.
Folks here aren't impressed with the lack of attention from the candidates.
"I think they should do more. It would make a difference," said Regina Cameron, 31, who works at the community's grocery store.
"I think maybe they think we natives don't really care or something," said Farrah Assiniboine, a 28-year-old resident, who spoke to the Free Press outside the same store this week.
It's true that voter turnout in provincial elections in a number of Manitoba First Nations is far from stellar. In 2007, only 20.9 per cent of registered voters in Long Plain cast ballots. And less than half the eligible residents -- 468 -- were registered to vote.
Chief David Meeches lays much of the blame on a lack of engagement by provincial politicians with his community. "We matter," he told the Free Press in an interview on the subject late last fall.
So far in this campaign, the candidates vying for the Portage la Prairie vote Oct. 4 have been -- to put it charitably -- tentative in their approach to Long Plain and two other First Nations within the constituency. (With Tory MLA David Faurchou's retirement, there is no incumbent in Portage.)
The Conservative candidate, Ian Wishart, a former president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, has made the biggest effort of them all so far. He's written a letter to Meeches asking for a meeting with the band council. He's also included Long Plain in a constituency-wide campaign pamphlet mail-out.
As of Wednesday, the NDP candidate, Portage la Prairie history teacher James Kostuchuk, had yet to contact the First Nation. Grit candidate Michelle Cudmore-Armstrong, a former City of Portage tourism and special projects manager, left a phone message for Meeches on Tuesday, perhaps coincidentally, after the Free Press made inquiries about her interest in courting the First Nation vote.
In recent interviews with the Portage candidates or their advisers, it is clear that all feel compelled to work through the chief and council before engaging Long Plain voters directly. In past campaigns, a visit to the band council has often been the extent of a politician's campaigning on the reserve -- as if the chief and councillors hold some magical sway over their constituents' voting decision.
Meeches is frustrated and angered at this paternalistic attitude. "When the candidate goes to the town of Portage la Prairie, does he ask the mayor for permission to talk to the people? Do they go to the reeve in the RM (rural municipality)?"
Freedom of expression does not end at the borders of Long Plain, he said this week, and provincial politicians should know that they don't need his permission to campaign in the community.
"Anybody from Portage la Prairie knows that they are welcome in Long Plain," he said. "Everybody knows that if we have a hockey game here you don't have to ask for permission to go watch hockey in our arena."
Meeches said he would welcome a candidates forum in the First Nation or a debate on the community's radio station (101.7 on the FM dial), which plays an eclectic mix of music that ranges from country, pop and rock to rap and hip hop. He's even offering candidates free advertising time on the station, while the campaign lasts, so they can get their message out to his community. "That way it won't affect any candidate's budget," he said with a smile.
Meeches said he would also write to the party leaders requesting them to appear on the radio.
The local candidates say they would welcome an opportunity to participate in a forum at Long Plain, but they seem to be waiting for chief and council to either give such an event their blessing or organize it. "It's been my feeling that when you come out to a reserve that you're a guest," said Kostuchuk.
While First Nations services are primarily the responsibility of the federal government, decisions made on Broadway in Winnipeg are becoming increasingly important to communities such as Long Plain. Ottawa may pay First Nation health costs, but the services are usually delivered by the province. Many First Nation students attend Manitoba public schools. Provincial roads cut through First Nations territories. Increasingly, the Manitoba government has also acted as an advocate for First Nations people in such areas as housing, flood mitigation and potable water.
That means provincial elections are important for First Nations people, Meeches said. "Gone are the days where we say we're federal people."
Several Long Plain residents have told the Free Press that they've never voted in a federal or provincial election -- only in band elections, which are highly contested.
But there are others, such as Farrah Assiniboine, a petite and bubbly young woman, who are craving information about the provincial candidates in their area so they can make an informed choice on Oct. 4. While she doesn't use the term, Assiniboine is a news junky, watching three or four TV newscasts a day.
She voted in the 2007 provincial election, but she said she had to rely exclusively on the media for information. "Nobody came around. Nobody said anything... about what they were going to do for natives on the reserve."
BY THE NUMBERS
56Sources: Elections Manitoba and Long Plain First Nation