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There are more Indigenous candidates, but will it lead to change in policy?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2019 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This is the first federal election in Canadian history where Indigenous issues are being regularly spoken about.

In each federal leaders debate, "Indigenous issues" has been a topic. On the campaign trail, mainstream reporters consistently ask questions about boil-water advisories, discrimination against Indigenous children and replacing the Indian Act. Parties actually have Indigenous policies and platforms.

All of this talk hasn’t improved the level of discussion. If anything, these past few weeks have illustrated a national epidemic of ignorance surrounding Indigenous Peoples, politics and communities (never mind reconciliation). But still, Canada has never seen this before.

As a result, new stories are emerging. Here are four of them:

1) Are Indigenous politicians Canada’s new "normal"?

According to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), there is a record number of Indigenous candidates running for office in the 2019 federal election: 62 First Nations, Inuit or Métis individuals (topping the 2015 record of 54).

The NDP leads with 27; next are the Liberals with 18. The Conservatives and Greens each have seven, and the People’s Party of Canada has two. There is one Independent candidate: former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

It used to be rare to see any Indigenous person run for federal office. Not only do you experience personal and professional challenges (like all politicians), but you have to deal with racism, speak competently on all things Indigenous, and somehow reconcile the complicated history between Indigenous nations and Canada (for more, listen to episode 6 of the Winnipeg Free Press podcast Not For Attribution).

After the ballots are counted Oct. 21, there likely will be more than the current-record 10 Indigenous MPs (2015). If 17 are elected, it will match the percentage of Indigenous Peoples in Canada’s population.

2) Are Indigenous Peoples going to rock the vote?

Indigenous Peoples came out to vote in record numbers (61 per cent of those eligible) in 2015 due to one main reason: a decade-long combative relationship with Tory prime minister Stephen Harper.

They influenced dozens of seats, elected Indigenous MPs and demanded parties pay attention to Indigenous issues.

With a burgeoning population, the AFN has identified 63 "priority districts" in 2019 where Indigenous Peoples could influence — or even outright determine — the result.

There is nearly universal disappointment amongst Indigenous Peoples with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, but this has not festered into the kind of motivation Harper inspired.

If anything, Indigenous voters may be turned off.

3) What is an Indigenous politician?

The No. 1 concern with all politicians is ethics. Are they running for ego or to help their constituents and communities? Often, in Canada, it’s both.

Indigenous Peoples don’t often leave their communities at the door of Parliament. This election has brought up the issue of ethics for Indigenous politicians more than ever before.

One issue surrounds identity. On Wednesday, Saint Mary’s University Prof. Darryl Leroux presented information to media that suggests as many as four "Indigenous" candidates running for the Liberal, Conservative and Green parties have dubious connections to communities, cultures and ancestries.

Other Indigenous politicians seem to be as interested in self-promotion as working for their constituents — and have been called out for it.

Powerful legacies have been left by Indigenous politicians such as Elijah Harper, Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Willie Littlechild and Romeo Saganash — the first Indigenous politician to use Cree in Parliament and demand Canada recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Who will walk in their footsteps?

4) Is this the rise of a new Indigenous politics?

In Canada, independent politicians go nowhere.

Wilson-Raybould, however, is not just any independent candidate. By all accounts, the former Liberal attorney general has a real chance to be re-elected Oct. 21. If she is, she will represent herself: a Kwak’wala woman in Vancouver.

Indigenous Peoples are Canada’s fastest-growing demographic. Most live in cities.

Wilson-Raybould would give voice to that demographic and be a party unto herself. Media would listen, too. She not only has a proven track record, but a big platform to stand on.

Wilson-Raybould is not alone. Candidates such as Leah Gazan (NDP) in Winnipeg Centre and Judy Klassen (Liberals) in Churchill-Keewatinook Aski regularly spar with their parties over their Indigenous platforms, representing "independent" voices that keep Indigenous values at the centre. It’s no coincidence these are also Indigenous women.

Indigenous elders such as Rudy Turtle (NDP) and Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux (Liberals) also stand to make big waves after having worked in politics for a long time.

Oct. 21 may signal a new Indigenous politics. Let’s hope so.


Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Updated on Friday, October 11, 2019 at 10:24 PM CDT: Fixes typo

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