Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
With wildfires and evacuations in Alberta, Indigenous voters will face more than the usual barriers when it comes to marking their ballots in the May 29 provincial election.
But one advocate says it’s more important than ever for Indigenous people to cast their votes.
“Danielle Smith has outright said she denies Indian residential school trauma, so that's the number one reason why every Indigenous person needs to go vote,” said Michelle Robinson, host of the Native Calgarian Podcast and co-chair of the Calgary planning committee on missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two spirit peoples.
Last spring before Smith became United Conservative Party (UCP) leader and premier, she posted a column calling unmarked graves at residential schools “fake news.”
Since becoming premier, Smith has also stated unvaccinated people were the “most discriminated-against group” ever in her lifetime, a false claim that obscures and diminishes the systemic racism and abuse that Indigenous people have faced since contact with Europeans, including the residential school system.
Smith has also declared that settler peoples and First Nations people “united to tame an unforgiving frontier” and jointly benefited. This comment was widely decried at the time as a whitewash of Canada/Indigenous historic relations.
Smith has since apologized for, walked back or doubled down on her comments.
“You have a leader that absolutely is denying our issues, so that is why we all should be voting in this election for sure,” said Robinson, who is Dene and lives in Calgary.
However, getting out that Indigenous vote continues to be a challenge. A lot of people don’t see themselves as Albertans but as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, said Robinson. So, they are prone to participate in their own community elections rather than in provincial or even federal elections.
Robinson says many First Nations people look at the provincial election as “somebody else’s political process” and see no value in participating.
“I think it's back to that treaty partnership (where)…all the colonial parties still represent the Crown and still represent a symbol of Canada as opposed to…that concept of Nation-to-Nation,” she said.
For almost 10 years, none of Alberta’s 87 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) have been Indigenous. Progressive Conservative Pearl Calahasen was the last Indigenous MLA, losing her seat in 2015 after serving for 25 years.
There are 13 Indigenous candidates across four parties all hoping to alter that reality.
“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 world views and my culture,’” said Green Party candidate Heather Morigeau, a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta. Morigeau is running in Red Deer-North.
Indigenous communities have faced systemic marginalization and discrimination for centuries, stemming from colonization and the legacy of colonial policies, says Patrick Stewart, Alberta Party Edmonton Castle Downs candidate, and that makes it difficult for both Indigenous candidates and voters to participate in the system.
“There are powerful and vocal voices out there, but maybe sometimes they feel they want to stay closer to community so they put their foot forward locally rather than at a provincial level,” said Stewart, who is Métis. He is one of two Indigenous candidates for the Alberta Party.
Kathleen Swampy, one of five Indigenous candidates for the New Democratic Party, is running in Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin. The riding includes all four First Nations that comprise Maskwacis, including her own Samson Cree Nation. According to the 2021 Canada Census, 25 per cent of the population in Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin identifies as Indigenous. In previous configurations, the First Nations communities there were split between two electoral ridings.
Many people choose to focus on chief and council elections, says Swampy, because historically the province has provided little to no funding for business on reserve. Now though, she says, there are provincial grants that have been made available.
“If we can get the people who have either not voted before or they just don't vote, they're non-voters, and we can let them know that…their voice does matter and their vote is the deciding factor in this upcoming election, hopefully they can show their support and let us know which side they really stand with, which values match theirs most,” said Swampy.
Another barrier, says Robinson, is that most people don’t feel their vote matters. But they’re wrong.
“Each vote can either be a protest and be against somebody or it could be genuine, ‘We believe in our candidate. We believe in the leader of a certain party,’” said Robinson. “It means something.”
Scott Sinclair is a non-status First Nation person, and the only Indigenous UCP candidate. He is the poster boy for every-vote-counts. When seeking the nomination to become the UCP candidate in the riding of Lesser Slave Lake, he had a list of supporters showing he’d have a 25-vote victory.
“But once we started talking to people on the morning of the vote, we realized that a lot of our supporters just were not going to make it…I knew it was going to be very close, but in the morning of (the vote) I thought we would win. But yeah, I didn't expect to win by three votes originally,” he said.
A recount showed he had won by five votes.
Accessing polling stations is another barrier to Indigenous election participation, says Robinson.
Transportation, whether in a city riding, a rural riding or on reserve, can also be an issue.
“In terms of the logistics of getting (Indigenous people) out to vote, that's a very difficult process. I would say the biggest thing…is trying to give people a reason to feel hopeful enough that they want to come out and vote for you, and that's what I intend to do,” said Sinclair.
Lesser Slave Lake is one of the largest geographical ridings in Alberta. Over half its population is Indigenous, according to the 2021 Canada Census, with numerous reserves, Métis settlements and Métis communities within it.
As for the strategy to make that turnout happen, Sinclair says he has a “specific plan,” but wouldn’t disclose it to Windspeaker.com.
Robinson says this may be an election where who doesn’t get the vote is more important than who does get the vote.
She admits that the strategy of voting someone out could appeal to Indigenous voters.
“I would just encourage people to consider voting for their future hopes instead of their current fears,” said Morigeau.
“With first-time voters I want them to vote for me, I really do, but at the same time, I want them to be engaged,” said Swampy. “I want them to understand there's more than one party. I want them to find out which values match theirs. I really want them to make an informed decision.”
Robinson encourages Indigenous voters to get out to the advanced polls instead of waiting for election day.
“It's a critical election for us all to vote (if), for no other reason than for harm reduction, to reduce the harm that's going to be perpetrated on us based off of the choices we have,” she said.
And Robinson is encouraging Albertans, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to consider how they may vote in order to reflect the voice of someone who cannot make it to the polling station.
“If you know someone at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, vote (in consideration of) them. Use your power and your privilege of voting for them…because I know the barriers people face in order to vote,” she said.
“We’re in survival mode rather than choices mode.”
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.