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Indigenous Voters Need a Reason to Care About Canada

As in the United States, even progressive politicians often offer only empty promises.

Andrew Meade/Getty Images

Canada voted Monday to elect its new prime minister and House of Commons. The Liberal party lost the majority it had enjoyed the past four years but managed to maintain a minority advantage over the Conservatives, meaning Justin Trudeau will remain prime minister for another four years. 

One question he should be asking himself, amid the sigh of relief and the wrangling over coalitions in parliament, is why, after turning out in such high numbers in the last election, many people of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities sat this vote out.

The run-up to the 2015 election and the past four years under the leadership of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party saw a spike in visibility for First Nations issues in Canadian politics. But as Trudeau’s first administration wound down and Indigenous voters began to revisit the promises Trudeau and the Liberals made both on the 2015 campaign trail and over his last four years in office, many began coming to a disappointing but ultimately unsurprising conclusion: the Canadian government, even when wrested away from the Conservatives, still does not care enough about its Indigenous citizens.

Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, and politician, plainly addressed this understanding in a recent column for Macleans: “Regardless of who First Nations vote for in any federal election, their voice makes no actual difference. The Canadian state has had the same ‘Indian policy’ for decades, and each party pushes forward with the assimilation of First Nations, albeit with varying degrees of politeness.

Canadian government and culture, when compared to the U.S., is strides ahead: the nation’s largest media outlet, the CBC, has a thriving Indigenous affairs unit; its government actively acknowledges and is working to address the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis (MMIW); some of the best work to come out of Canada’s film industry in the past two decades has been distinctly, unapologetically Indigenous in both subject and production.

But reconciliation is not relative; a government either makes good on the promises to reform the systems that have long threatened Indigenous people and their culture, or it does not. Canada—and specifically the Liberal Party over the past four years of its majority power—has not. Trudeau, like his American counterpart President Barack Obama, who endorsed him last week, ultimately left a first-term legacy that provided beautiful, progressive rhetoric on the healing and drastic reversal in federal policy needed for his Indigenous constituents, but provided little by the way of concrete action.


For the past month, Indigenous writers in the Canadian media, both national and local, have bemoaned the lack of discussion on Indigenous issues in the 2019 election. In early September, Tanya Talaga, an Anishinaabe columnist for the Toronto Sun, denounced Trudeau’s silence in the wake of a court’s decision to demand the city of Ottawa compensate Indigenous children $2 billion for years of “willfully and recklessly” underfunding their child welfare program. Three weeks later, and three days before the deadline to do so, Trudeau’s government appealed the decision.

As a result of this silence and antagonistic governing from the party purportedly claiming to be on their side, Indigenous voter numbers in Canada were expected, going into Monday’s election, to dip from their historic 2015 rates, barring a surprising turnout. When previously asked about why they might sit out this election, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit voters had said that it might be more useful to return to participating solely in their own governments instead of waiting on Canada’s federal system to come through for them. “There are things set in place that you can’t change, that they can’t change,” Vivian Pratt, a would-be voter from the Constance Lake First Nation, told CBC, referring to the Canadian government. “But we can change them. We can stand up for our land and voice our opinions.” (For those curious what Indigenous governance looks like, read this profile of the Haudenosaunee.)

For their part, First Nations leaders have been very open in addressing the decision by their people to abstain from the 2019 prime minister election. A large portion of the apathy stems from the aforementioned sentiment that anti-Indigenousness is a bipartisan effort. But it’s also a problem of Indigenous people being disallowed from dictating the terms of engagement when it comes to campaign and election events.  Not a single one of the 2019 debates featured an Indigenous panelist or moderator.

Nor does the public seem to have an accurate idea of what issues Indigenous peoples care about. Non-Indigenous Canadian press and politicians tend to focus on pipelines and climate change as top issues for the nation’s Indigenous population. But while numerous First Nations, Inuit, and Métis governments and citizens absolutely do oppose pipelines and climate change, items like basic employment options and clean drinking water appear to come first for many Indigenous voters, especially those located in the North. Boil water advisories still exist for over 50 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit towns, a harsh reality that all major parties have committed to fixing, though none of them with the speed that any person who has been deprived of clean drinking water would accept.

On Monday, The New York Times published a feature story that offered a look at the Inuit communities in the North, specifically in the hamlet of Cape Dorset. The goal of the article was to lay out how the introduction and adoption of Inuit art programs and sales by both the Canadian and international art communities was supposed to provide an economic boom that never arrived. Instead, while their art has been celebrated and a select few creators have attained financial success, the communities are still facing the front lines of climate change with little by way of steady economic vehicles to protect them from change and indigence.

Even when familiar subjects like pipelines are broached, the response from Trudeau’s Liberal government—who, like Obama’s Democratic contingency, is invested in seeing the completion of a number of gas and oil pipelines—lacks signs of serious thought. To wit: In late September, Trudeau promised to use profits from the Trans Mountain pipeline to, among other things, plant a lot of trees.

The present reality is that, for the Indigenous people who choose to participate in Canada’s government, there exist few political options. Jagmeet Singh, a member of the New Democratic Party, and Elizabeth May, of the Green Party, both easily stepped to the front of the field this election cycle when it came to centering Indigenous voices and issues. But as neither NDP nor the Green Party have ever formed a winning coalition in Canada, they lack the political infrastructure necessary to win the election—though their down-ballot effect on the House of Commons balance could end up making them much more influential over the next four years.

Indigenous voters do matter in Canadian elections. Sixty-two Indigenous candidates—like 25-year-old Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, a New Democratic Party member and Inuk woman from Nunavut who claimed a seat in the House last night—ran for office down-ticket in this election. The Assembly of First Nations believed Indigenous voters could potentially swing 63 of Canada’s 338 electoral districts. But when it comes to the prime minister race, the same age-old question will remain until it is buried once and for all by a government that puts its money where its mouth is: Why bother?