In the face of anti-Indigenous sentiment, candidates say representation in Alberta’s legislature is important

Wednesday, May 24th, 2023 12:15pm


Image Caption

Tigra-Lee Campbell is a Green candidate in the riding of Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright.


“We need more leaders stepping up and running that are Indigenous... Hopefully we're talking about an Indigenous caucus. Hopefully we're talking about one day an Indigenous Prime Minister.” —Scott Sinclair is the UCP candidate in Lesser Slave Lake
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There’s a Cree word that Katherine Swampy and her campaign team have printed on their T-shirts that keeps them moving on, even after they encounter bad experiences when knocking on doors.

Kiyam … It essentially means ‘to let it go.’ It’s a common term in the Cree language used often when you're at peace with yourself and with your surroundings and nothing anyone does or says can or will affect you. No negativity, no malice will touch you,” said Swampy, the New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate for Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin.

It's about mental health and wellbeing, says Swampy, who is from Samson Cree Nation and is one of five Indigenous candidates for the NDP in the upcoming Alberta election.

In keeping with the spirit of kiyam, Swampy would only add that campaigning in the riding has been “interesting,” when asked by to expand on the anti-Indigenous sentiments she has experienced.

According to the 2021 Canada Census, one-quarter of the population in Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin identifies as Indigenous. The riding includes all four of the First Nations that comprise Maskwacis, including Swampy’s nation.

Green Party candidate Heather Morigeau, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, says her experience campaigning in the riding of Red Deer-North, has been “interesting” as well.

“How I present myself is how it changes the way people react. Sometimes if I am wearing my beaded earrings or my sash or something like that, sometimes I'll notice that people are a little sharper, a little colder. Not all people, but just on occasion,” said Morigeau, one of five Indigenous candidates for the Greens.

These “microaggressions,” she quickly adds, are not limited to the campaign trail. “I deal with them more in my day-to-day life.”

Morigeau, who is also an artist, says it’s “typical” to have security follow her around an art store or to be checked before leaving large chain stores.

Red Deer-North has an Indigenous population of 7.6 per cent according to the 2021 Canada Census.

For Patrick Stewart, who is also Métis, his experience at the door has been the opposite.

He says if he’s wearing something that visibly identifies him as Métis, such as a Métis sash on his hat, if the person at the door is Métis, “they warm up to me.”

Stewart is one of two Indigenous candidates for the Alberta Party.

Only five per cent of his riding of Edmonton Castle Downs identifies as Indigenous, according to the 2021 Canada Census.

Tigra-Lee Campbell, a Green candidate in the riding of Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright, says the highly conservative rural riding has presented its opportunities and challenges.

Campbell, whose father is Indigenous and mother is Jamaican, recalls an “interesting” conversation she had with a female business owner downtown when she and her campaign team were handing out posters to mark Red Dress Day on May 5.

The business owner said she was “frustrated” about the focus of the day being solely on Indigenous people because white women also went missing and were murdered.

Campbell says she explained to the shop owner that Indigenous people had a substantially higher rate of experiencing violence.

“It ended up good. She did take a poster that she hung up,” said Campbell. “I know and I understand that you speak to somebody (and) you're not going to change their mind in that moment. It usually takes two or three touches by a few different people in order for them to even be receptive of what you're saying.”

Only eight-and-a-half per cent of Campbell’s riding is Indigenous, according to the 2021 Canada Census.

Scott Sinclair is the UCP candidate in Lesser Slave Lake, a geographically large rural riding which has more than half of its population identify as Indigenous, according to the 2021 Canada Census.

As a non-status First Nation man, he is the only Indigenous candidate for the governing party.

“I'm super excited when people vote for me only because of the way I look…but it also concerns me that there might be groups of people that don't vote for me because of the way I look,” said Sinclair. “The way people perceive me without knowing me, that's going to be difficult, but I think once they get to know me, they'll see that I'm a sincere and authentic person.”

Despite the anti-Indigenous sentiment many of the candidates face, none of them believe they’ve made the wrong decision in running for political office.

In fact, says Swampy, the need for an Indigenous voice in the Alberta legislature became evident for her when the UCP government passed the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act in 2020.

The act was introduced in response to blockades of railroad lines and roads that were happening across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en fight against the Coastal GasLink  pipeline in their traditional territory in British Columbia.

Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act made it illegal for similar protests at “essential infrastructure” sites, which included pipelines, oil and gas production sites, highways and railways.

“It was quite threatening and it was targeting, we'll say, grassroots people (which) …I felt was like a very nice way of putting who they were targeting. I felt like that law was created specifically for Indigenous people and it was created without consultation of Indigenous communities,” said Swampy.

With no sitting Indigenous Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), there was no Indigenous voice to speak out against the bill, she said.

“And when that law passed, I was outraged. I was upset,” said Swampy and she decided to run again. This is her second bid to become an MLA, although this time she’s trying in a different riding.

Stewart acknowledges the historical factors that have resulted in the systemic under-representation of Indigenous candidates in politics, including marginalization and discrimination. He says it has a circular effect: Lack of Indigenous representation in politics discourages potential candidates from pursuing political careers.

“I think what's most important is a visual representation of our community within the legislature, to have people that we can look at and say, ‘Well, that person represents my views, my worldviews and my culture.’ That’s important,” said Morigeau.

Sinclair admits he feels a “certain amount of pressure” to follow in the footsteps of Pearl Calahasen, who was the last Indigenous MLA to sit in the legislature and who also represented Lesser Slave Lake. Calahasen ran for the Progressive Conservatives and lost in the 2015 election after holding her seat for 25 years.

Prior to the 2019 election, the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party joined forces to become the UCP.

Sinclair is hopeful that this election results in three or five Indigenous MLAs being elected and commits to working with them regardless of the parties they represent.

“We need more leaders stepping up and running that are Indigenous and hopefully we're not talking about me being the only MLA in four years. Hopefully we're talking about an Indigenous caucus. Hopefully we're talking about one day an Indigenous Prime Minister. That's the way I choose to see the world…that we're getting better and I think I can help with that,” said Sinclair.

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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.