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First Nations wary of Harper majority: Chief Phillip

The truth about why Aboriginal leaders in BC were watching this election, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, wasn’t to see what party would surge ahead. They were watching because they didn’t want Stephen Harper to gain a majority Conservative government.

Not only has Mr. Harper consistently shown hostility toward aboriginal issues, said Phillip, first by hammering the Kelowna Accord, and then refusing to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People but what really scares him is that the White Paper is looming like a ghost in the background.

Phillip, who has been involved in aboriginal politics for more than 30 years, said that when Trudeau announced the White Paper in 1969 — in what the Grand Chief calls a mass attempt to completely assimilate aboriginal people into mainstream society — the former Prime Minister galvanized a political movement instead.

But Phillip, who lives in Stockwell Day’s Okanagan- Coquihalla riding, also remembers when Day was the leader of the Canadian Alliance. “He said he’d have the guts to implement the White Paper,” said Phillip.

Getting more First Nations people involved in the mainstream political process — by running as MPs or MLAs or voting for them — is important but he says organizations like the Union of BC Indian Chiefs have shown quicker results.

“There’s a reason our people don’t stampede to the polls,” he said. Not since the 1992 election right after the conflict at Oka, have aboriginal issues been on the national election agenda. He said his people don’t vote for ideological reasons. “And that opinion needs to be respected.”

That said, Phillip always votes. And who he votes for is no secret. He’s got big NDP signs strung along his hometown fence. Still his support for NDP’s Ralph Poynting didn’t stop Day from winning with a landslide tonight.

Meanwhile several ridings with a high percentage of aboriginal voters have also gone Conservative. In Nunavut, four First Nations candidates ran, but the Conservative candidate Leona Aglukkaq took the riding away from the Liberals this time.

Conservative Rob Clark in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River also took the riding from a Liberal.

In Churchill, Manitoba, the NDP took the riding back from the Liberals who won in 2006 with Tina Keeper, one time star of the CBC show, North of 60. Ms Keeper was born and raised in the 55 per cent First Nations population riding, but new MP Niki Ashton’s campaign manager Rod Murphy (who was NDP MP for 14 years) says the riding has only gone Liberal twice since 1979. “They elected Tina and Elijah [Harper] once,” he said, suggesting that the Aboriginal population supported their own candidates for one election, but were disappointed enough to turf them the next time.

With 24 federal ridings showing aboriginal populations higher than 10 per cent of the general population, the Assembly of First Nations tried to get their constituents out to vote, saying they could have had an impact on the way the voting went in those ridings.

Skeena-Bulkley Valley resident Doug Donaldson, who ran as an NDP candidate in the 2005 provincial election and plans to run again in the spring, has been involved in an effort to get First Nations voters out to the polls.

“We want to see people get involved in the determination of their future and if they get out and vote, that’s a step towards in getting them to do other things to take control of their future,” he said.

Donaldson says the key to getting people out to vote is creating close connections in communities. The long time Hazelton-area resident knows that getting the key movers and shakers in the community out knocking on doors, ready to drive people to the polls if necessary, makes all the difference.

Early indications at the polls may suggest not as many voters came out this time. He says in one community the voter turnout was 35 per cent lower than it was in 2006. Donaldson wasn’t sure if that trend would play out throughout the Skeena Bulkley Valley riding, but if it does, he thinks there could be a couple of explanations.

One, having an election the day after a holiday made it difficult for campaigners to find people to encourage them to vote. Second, the new requirement to bring ID to the polls were onerous. “Most people don’t have driver’s licenses and status cards don’t have addresses on them,” he said.

With a lot of support in the First Nations communities in Skeena Bulkley Valley, it was no surprise that NDP incumbent Nathan Cullen took the seat again, but the NDP could lose in a tight race in Vancouver Island North.

Phillip said no matter who wins in individual ridings, another minority Conservative government will do nothing to improve the relationship with aboriginal people in the country.

"The only time we receive consideration is when frustrations grow to the point of demonstrations, rallies and road blocks," he said.

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