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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Are efforts to engage in Aboriginal people in consultation and other political processes worth the effort given low First Nations voter turnout in federal elections?

by Greg Poelzer

This post is based on the author's recent co-authored article in Policy Options.

Three things to know about Aboriginal political participation:

  1. In the 2011 federal election, the general voter turnout was 61 percent; First Nations on reserve turn out was 44 per cent.

  2. Aboriginal MPs have held federal cabinet posts in both Liberal and Conservative governments (in 2011, there were three Aboriginal cabinet ministers), as well as Aboriginal MLAs have served as cabinet ministers in all four Western provincial governments.

  3. Aboriginal self-government, modern treaties, and court defined obligation of the Crown regarding the duty to consult with First Nations before resource development can take place means Aboriginal political engagement with provincial and federal governments will become an increasingly important issue.

Three myths about Aboriginal political life:

Myth #1: Aboriginal communities are socially dysfunctional, have limited social capital and, therefore, have weak civic society.  

Reality: This is important because civil society and social capital are strongly tied to political engagement.  However, our study of Northern Saskatchewan suggests that close to 80 percent of Aboriginal northerners shared or gave away traditional foods with community members (moose meat and berries); 40 percent reported volunteering for a band event.  These very high levels of civic activity indicate strong Aboriginal social capital.

Myth #2: Aboriginal people don’t vote and are politically apathetic.

Reality: In our study in Northern Saskatchewan, self-reported voting in Band elections was 77 per cent; 31 percent said they had attended a band council meeting; 23 percent reported contacting a government office about an issue in the past year.  These rates of political engagement are far higher than the general population.

Myth #3: Aboriginal people only support political parties on the left.

Reality: Although across Canada, Aboriginal people overall vote more for NDP and Liberals candidates, Aboriginal voters cast votes for all the major political parties and run as candidates for all the major political parties.  In the last federal election, of the seven Aboriginal elected MPs, five were Conservatives. In past parliaments, the Liberals and NDP have elected several Aboriginal MPs to their caucuses. It is worth the effort for all political parties to engage Aboriginal voters.

Greg Poelzer is Executive Chair and Founding Director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development and a member of the Department of Political Studies and the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan. He is the lead of the UArctic Thematic Network on Northern Governance. Greg’s research focuses on northern policy and Aboriginal-state relations. His first book, Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North (2008), was awarded (with his co-authors) the Donner Prize for excellence and innovation in Canadian public policy writing. His second co-authored book, with UBC Press, From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation: A Road Map for All Canadians, is forthcoming, Spring 2015. 

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