“All About Strong Alliances: First Nations Engagement in the Federal Election” is written by Pamela Palmater from Ryerson University.
Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Pamela Palmater and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.
Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here.
For many members of First Nations communities, the basic rights of First Nations and the protection of their environment were at stake in the 2015 Canadian federal election. The thought of another Conservative majority was too much to bear for many of them.
To prevent this Conservative majority from happening, First Nations and like-minded Canadians used the alliances they forged under the Idle No More movement to rally the vote against this possibility. Idle No More was the largest social movement Canada has ever seen. For over six months in 2013, it captured media headlines around the world. To members of this movement, Stephen Harper’s focus on security was based on a campaign of fear, not facts. The Conservative government’s Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-51) had the potential to make Canadians terrorists for merely expressing their dissent. The result was public outcry from many segments of society, including some former prime ministers, former Supreme Court of Canada justices, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officials, lawyers and academics. How Bill C-51 might be used to supress another Idle No More movement was a source of concern.
Throughout the campaign, the Conservative Party chose not to address the rising incarceration rates of First Nations, the 1,200 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls from over the past 30 years, or the thousands of Indigenous children in care. There was similarly no plan for the 120 First Nations without clean water, the many who die from preventable diseases, or the thousands without housing or education. Prime Minister Harper’s response during a CBC interview in December 2014 regarding an inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls was, by many, interpreted as a synopsis of how little his party cared for the plight of members of First Nations communities: “It’s not high on our radar, to be honest.” His position during the campaign on this important issue would not change, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which included a call for an inquiry.
The Tories also all but ignored a looming crisis facing Canada, and a matter of importance to many members of First Nations communities: climate change. During the Conservative tenure, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enacted Bills C-45 and C-38, which ended protections for many waterways and reduced environmental evaluation and public consultative processes. The potentially catastrophic consequences for future generations were not something that many members of the First Nations movement would accept. However, it is important to note that this was never a partisan issue. Those First Nations who do vote have voted for different parties at different times, at both federal and provincial levels. In this election, there were a few First Nations candidates running for the Conservative Party. The issue was more about Harper’s control over the party and its ideological orientation.
It seems like the Idle No More movement regrouped during the 2015 election campaign. Numerous civil society groups, First Nations communities, and grassroots groups banned together and used every opportunity to engage with the public through lectures, community meetings, house visits, mail-outs, and media commentary. Numerous conference calls and strategy sessions were held with diverse groups all over Canada. First Nations and various organizations like the Council of Canadians, The David Suzuki Foundation, Amnesty International, and many others, including unions, youth groups, students, lawyers, academics, scientists, environmentalists, and a wide range of social justice activists, collectively used social media to engage with Canadians of all ages with reports, analyses, videos, webcasts, commentaries and fact sheets. This was a historic example of a peaceful, but powerful movement of members of First Nations communities and other like-minded Canadians to get rid of a government.
However, there was debate within First Nations communities about whether they should vote or not. Many members of First Nations traditionally do not participate in federal elections because they identify as members of sovereign nations rather than as Canadian citizens. In 2015, many still felt the same way about voting, but were so adamant about getting rid of the Conservative government that they felt they should vote. Controversy arose within communities when the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) National Chief, Perry Bellegarde, flip-flopped during the campaign on whether he would vote or not and on his commitment that the AFN would remain non-partisan. Yet, the movement for change was so strong that First Nations grassroots organizations and community either “rocked the Indigenous vote” or mobilized their Canadian allies to do so.
While it is important to note that all parties have had a hand in the dispossession and oppression of First Nations, Harper’s administration was particularly rough. But Canada has changed. Its people, First Nations and Canadians alike, worked together for change both within the election process, in terms of voting, and outside that process, in terms of public education and mobilization. It remains to be seen what that change will look like, but at the moment there is a sense of optimism that the new Liberal government may afford First Nations peoples, the environment, and Canadians more just treatment than the outgoing Conservative administration did.
Pam Palmater is an Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. She is Mi’kmaw from the Eel River Bar First Nation. She has been a practising lawyer for sixteen years, focusing on laws impacting Indigenous peoples. She is also a social justice activist and frequent media commentator on First Nations issues. Her two books are Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity (Purich Publishing, 2011) and Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens (Fernwood, 2015).
You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website.