Candidates Court First Nations Voters

But one native prof scorns voting at all, calling it a ‘smiling high five’ to oppressors.

By Heather Ramsay 8 Apr 2005 |
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“They used to bring candy, but now they don’t,” says Glen Williams, hereditary chief of the Gitanyow First Nation in Northern British Columbia of candidates on the provincial campaign trail.

As a child he was dazzled by the goodies, but now if a candidate wants to impress his nation, Williams says they’d have bring something far more substantial — like respect and certainty for his people and their land.

Aboriginal people make up 15 per cent of the population of 10 northern ridings as diverse as the Cariboo, Peace River, Skeena and Prince George. In some constituencies like the vast North Coast, which encompasses far flung places like Bella Bella, the Nass Valley and Haida Gwaii, the percentage reaches to 40. The Bulkley Valley-Stikine also has a high percentage, at 20 and includes the territory of the Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en, Lake Babine and the Tahltan.

What does a vote really say?

Although Elections BC doesn’t trace the ethnicity of registered voters so there are no exact statistics, anecdotal evidence says First Nations aren’t coming out to vote in droves.

But as Alexandra Macqueen, a communications and government relations consultant based in Toronto, noticed in the aftermath of the 2004 federal election, there was plenty of ink spilled in Aboriginal circles on how much their vote matters or whether voting is just another form of being sucked into “the white man’s game.”

Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk who teaches in the Indigenous governance program at UVIC is particularly outspoken when it comes to Indian people participating in federal and provincial elections.

“An Indian giving a vote to a political candidate in a Canadian election is the same thing as giving an “OK” and smiling high five to the whole system that’s been created to control us and take away our rights,” he said in a June 2004 article.

Radical notions aside, since the 2001 election, Elections BC has hired an aboriginal liaison officer to help encourage First Nations to at least register to vote. Sonya Payne of Lax Kw’Alaams, a community near Prince Rupert, has been contacting friendship centres and aboriginal organizations across the province to build relationships and send voter registration information to since last November.

She is passionate about giving everyone a chance to vote.

“It is our voice. . . It is your chance to say something with your vote.”

She has been handing out information packages at events across the province, including the February all-native basketball tournament in Prince Rupert, which brought in teams from around the province.

Wooing First Nations

Candidates in two ridings with the highest aboriginal population have been doing their own work to engage First Nation constituents in the upcoming election.

In the Bulkley-Valley Stikine, NDP candidate Doug Donaldson, is a newcomer to provincial politics, but a longtime resident and municipal councilor in Old Hazelton in the heart of Gitxsan territory.

He says aboriginal people comprise 80 per cent of the population in his immediate area and his campaign office is mobilizing to get people who haven’t participated before to come out to vote.

Of course, he is hoping these people will vote for him, but he also thinks it’s important to simply engage people in the political process.

Research undertaken by his office suggests there is quite a difference between the numbers of those who are eligible to vote and those from first nation villages who actually voted in the last election.

Donaldson says that, along with a high first nations population, Hazelton has two times the provincial average of those under 30. His team is specifically targeting young aboriginal voters.

“I’ve talked to a number of people who have registered since they found out I was a candidate,” he says.

Bill Belsey, the Liberal party incumbent in the North Coast riding suggests making relationships is the most important part of engaging the First Nation vote. He says over the last four years he has made an effort to visit all of the communities in his riding.

He has even taken cabinet ministers to tiny communities like Hartley Bay, Lax Kw’Alaams (Port Simpson) and Kincolith, some of which had never had such a visit before.

Top issues: jobs, cut services

In terms of specifically addressing First Nation concerns in his campaign, Belsey suggests that the issues change over the diverse landscape he represents.

But both Belsey and Donaldson agree the major concerns about jobs and the economy in the north are the same, whether voters are first nations or not.

But while Belsey maintains his government’s policies, especially those to do with revenue sharing forest agreements and community forests, will help him win the first nations vote, Donaldson is struck by people’s ongoing anger over loss of services in the north, due to Liberal policies.

Rural areas have been particularly hard hit by cuts to hospitals, schools and government services says Donaldson, even though these same areas bring in 70 per cent of new revenue to the province.

“It is amazing how angry people are … People are impoverished and they are having to go further to get the services that people elsewhere in BC are able to find around the corner or down the block.,” he says.

Rising unrest; bitter memories

But the question remains whether recent uprisings, litigation and general unrest over the rate of speed of settling land use issues in Indian territory will have any effect on the results of the May 17 election.

The Haida, supported by non-native residents of Haida Gwaii, have effectively stopped Weyerhaueser from logging on Graham Island for the last two weeks by blocking logging roads.

In Tahltan territory, a group of elders have occupied their Telegraph Creek band office since January 17 to protest the pace of development in their traditional territory and the leadership of Chief Jerry Asp.

And in Bella Bella and Klemtu, Heiltsuk and Kitasoo have driven away commercial fishermen and set up a no fishing zone to protect the herring on roe fishery.

Former NDP cabinet minister and representative for Prince George-Mount Robson Paul Ramsey thinks the uprising on Haida Gwaii, where natives and non-natives alike are calling for more community control and sustainable logging practices, could form the basis for widespread action against the policies of the Liberal government.

But someone would have to take the lead and mobilize around it, not an easy task he says.

He also notes the blunder made by the Liberals in 2002 when they, as Ramsey put it, asked the majority to decide on minority rights. The lead-up to the $4 million Treaty Referendum saw First Nations and non-first nations coming together to burn ballots in protest, or simply refuse to vote.

The Toronto-based Citizens for Public Justice said that 75 per cent of voters in BC either register a no vote or boycotted the process.

“There are still no treaties,” says Ramsey. “The Campbell government has not dealt with this issue honorably.”

Donaldson admits there is an underlying bitterness about the referendum on the ground in his riding, but it’s not the first thing people mention, unless they are involved in treaty negotiations themselves.

“If it were up to the people living here to come to an agreement on how to live together we would have settled treaties long ago.”

Still awaiting resolution

Chief Williams, who is at the treaty table for the Gitanyow, says that movement on treaties is one of the key issues for his people.

He is willing to accept an incremental treaty process that would bring them baby steps closer to the certainty on land issues his community seeks, but according to Williams they have hit an impasse with the provincial government over governance issues.

He is also waiting for the government to take recent court decisions seriously, and make good on their duty to consult.

“The Ministry of Forests is continuing its activities as if there was no decision by the high courts in this country to engage in consultation and accommodation,” he says.

The Gitanyow have been to court twice now over the transfer of tenure related to the sale and then bankruptcy of New Skeena, and have won each time.

But when asked if he thinks these issues will mobilize his nation to vote in any particular way, he really didn’t think so.

“We had the same problem when the NDP were there and the same problem with the Liberals. There is no difference, their policies are same.”

Heather Ramsay, based in Queen Charlotte City, is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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