The myth and opportunity of the Indigenous vote

The Hill Times, September 9, 2019

It’s election time again, when political parties look to build voter support. Are Indigenous votes included in these national discussions about where we want to go as a country? Some may answer that there is enough Indigenous inclusion. The usual defence is either the Indigenous vote is so small that it isn’t worth the resources, and this is a myth Indigenous vote numbers can swing ridings across the north of Canada and can be incredibly influential. This is a real opportunity.

The second defence is that “the Indigenous issues” are specific to Indigenous peoples so not national in scope. It’s time to challenge the notion that “Indigenous issues” are about Indigenous peoples. This is Canada’s enduring myth.

We would not describe the challenges facing new immigrants as “the immigrant issues.” Instead, we would describe the systems and barriers that may be faced by new Canadians, such as the immigration process and mix of provincial, municipal, and non-profit resources and supports. But we wouldn’t personalize the discussion. When the phrase “Indigenous issue” is used, it risks the perception that Indigenous peoples are the issue, instead of focusing on the systems and barriers that are holding back Indigenous inclusion.

It’s about systems.

For an example of systems not exactly working as planned, let’s talk about child welfare for Indigenous children. The proportion of Indigenous children in care is horrifying, but is not an “Indigenous issue,” it’s a Canadian issue.

The network of systems apprehends Indigenous children at much higher rates than any other group, and continues to foster and adopt our Indigenous children to families from starkly different cultures. The most recent report about inequities for Indigenous child welfare comes from Newfoundland and Labrador by child and youth advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh, but it could have been written about almost any child welfare system in Canada. So how about we protect all our children, including Indigenous children? How about we demand a change in systems?

If there was a poll of Indigenous Canadians, there wouldn’t be just one or two top priorities, but I suspect these would be in the top 10: child welfare, so we don’t repeat the outcomes of the ’60s Scoop again in the 2020s decade; the safety of Indigenous women and girls, so that we don’t lose another thousand to murder in the next decade; legislation to implement reconciliation at federal and provincial/territorial levels, so that we don’t waste yet another generation of Indigenous children’s hope; funding and supports for basic education in the K-12 schools, so that kids can succeed in science and math and enter university; and basic housing with safe drinking water. The hard truth is that each of these priorities is heart-breaking—that we have to fight for it, and that we all don’t have it.

These are not partisan issues. Indigenous inclusion is a moral issue. It’s time we all demand that political platforms give attention to these systems in desperate need of change, so that Indigenous peoples need not fear the systems purported to help them.

This is a time for allies—non-Indigenous Canadians—to amplify the voices of Indigenous and demand some changes. It won’t be easy. There are layers upon layers of complexity in these discussions and multiple perspectives on the problems and proposed solutions. I do know that an essential part of the answer is to include Indigenous voices in all aspects of the election.

Here is a call to political parties to do real inclusion for Indigenous Canadians in this election.

  • Federal riding associations, please consider your role in reconciliation, build your cultural competence, and hire Indigenous people.
  • Candidates, please go to your constituents to learn about their perspectives and priorities. Do the door-knocking in Indigenous communities and attend the gatherings. Learn more to represent better.
  • Party executives, please involve Indigenous political strategists in inner circles, not just to get input on “Indigenous issues,” but on all discussions like any other Canadian. Also, advertise and build voter support through Indigenous media.
  • Challenge all forms of racism, including in policy or communications, which dismiss Indigenous priorities as less than important than any other voice or group.

Finally, please challenge systems to change. People built the systems, people can change them for the better.

Rose LeMay is Tlingit from the West Coast. She writes her Hill Times column, ‘Stories, Myths, and Truths,’ twice a month about Indigenous inclusion and reconciliation. In Tlingit worldview, the stories are the knowledge system, sometimes told through myth and sometimes contradicting the myths told by others. But always with at least some truth.