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‘If you want to become an MP, you better listen to us’: Bellegarde says First Nations are becoming an electoral force

By Jolson Lim      

'Why should we just give First Nations people the First Nations stuff?' AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde says, adding that he'd love to see more Indigenous people also filling the ranks of public service and other appointed roles.

Perry Bellegarde, pictured in an interview in The Hill Times' office on Dec. 13, said he expects the Liberal government to table legislation recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the spring of 2018. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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First Nations people are now voting in federal elections more than ever before and emerging as such an influential force in Canadian politics that candidates of all stripes will have to consider Indigenous issues when running for federal office, says Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde.

“The concept of dual citizenship, we’re embracing that,” Mr. Bellegarde told The Hill Times’ editorial board in an interview on Dec. 13, asserting that the 2015 federal election was a watershed moment for First Nations’ people and its relationship with the federal government.

Voter turnout among First Nations communities in 2015 was the highest for any federal election, according to Mr. Bellegarde, whose organization was contracted by Elections Canada to support information outreach efforts on how to register and vote.

Elections Canada found turnout rates for First Nations reserves reached 61.5 per cent in 2015, the smallest gap between reserves and the general population ever observed by the agency since it began calculating turnout for the Indigenous population in 2004. In 2015, turnout by the general population hovered around 66 per cent, excluding special ballot votes.

“If you want to become an MP, you better listen to us. You better focus on our issues because we’re voting now,” he said, adding that in the past, MPs wouldn’t care about Indigenous issues because they knew they wouldn’t vote anyways. 

“Federal MPs are paying attention to us now because we have influenced a number of ridings. We don’t have any economic power—most of our people are poor—but we can harness that political power.”

Mr. Bellegarde said the First Nations vote was able to influence results in 51 ridings, and that ballots even ran out on some reserves. Prior to the election, the AFN developed the list of 51 ridings based on which ridings had a large First Nations population and ones where its voters could swing a close result.

Out of the 51 ridings, the Liberals won 24, the NDP 15, the Conservatives nine, and the Bloc Québécois two. Out of the seats the Liberals won, 17 were gains for the party from the 2011 election.

Mr. Bellegarde, who grew up on the Little Black Bear reserve in eastern Saskatchewan, said the 2015 election was the first federal one he had ever voted in. He said some First Nations people, including himself, didn’t vote in the past because of existing treaty relationships that dictated much of his reserve’s affairs.

He said after being asked by a journalist before the 2015 elections whether he votes, to which he had no answer, Mr. Bellegarde returned to his reserve and spoke to his elders, youth, and relatives to talk about doing so. They said, according to Mr. Bellegarde, “it’s okay now. It’s time.”

A record 12 Indigenous MPs were also elected in 2015. The election that year was the 18th election in which First Nations people could vote, with 1962 being the first time they were permitted to cast ballots in a federal election.

The fourth such time AFN has partnered with Elections Canada in an election project, the 2015 effort focused on providing information to First Nations communities about changes to voter identification and registration rules in the 2014 Fair Elections Act, and where and when they could register and vote. Although government resources couldn’t be used to get out the vote because of new election rules, Mr. Bellegarde and other leaders expressed support for First Nations casting ballots.

More Indigenous people should fill feds’ ranks

AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde sits down with The Hill Times‘ editorial board on Dec. 13. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. Bellegarde said there should be more Indigenous people filling the ranks of the federal civil service and appointed roles, adding that he’d “love to see” an Indigenous person serving as a justice on the Supreme Court of Canada, on the National Energy Board, and on the board of directors of universities.

However, he cautioned that First Nations leaders shouldn’t be “pigeon-holed” into only Indigenous-specific roles. While there’s “value added” in placing Indigenous leaders with the relevant life experience in specific jobs, Mr. Bellegarde stressed that First Nations people are also scientists, lawyers and businesspeople, “so why should we just give First Nations people the First Nations stuff?”

Currently, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) is the only Indigenous member of cabinet, and the first in history to serve as justice minister. No Indigenous politician has ever headed the department responsible for Indigenous affairs.

But Mr. Bellegarde pointed to deputy ministerial roles as an area of focus for increasing the number Indigenous people within the ranks of the public service. He said all 34 deputy ministers are “stuck in the same old way of doing business,” and that he wants to work with the Privy Council Office and deputy ministers in the future, “to push them to be innovative and creative.”

He pointed towards the splitting of Indigenous and Northern Affairs portfolio into two departments—Indigenous Services, and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs—as an opportunity to “think outside the box.”

“It’s a huge step. Why is it good? … Now we have an opportunity to really engage the Crown,” Mr. Bellegarde said, adding that one department focusing on Crown-Indigenous issues will make it easier to deal with negotiation on treaty rules, implementation and enforcement.

The department was split up during an August cabinet shuffle, with Mr. Trudeau saying the move would help remove its old “paternalistic” and “colonial” structures and begin to move Canada past the Indian Act. Twenty years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended splitting the department.

Although some critics are worried that splitting of Indigenous Affairs would amount to a bureaucratic disaster, Mr. Bellegarde said there’s “more pluses than minuses, because if you didn’t do this, what you’re doing is signalling the status quo.”

“You’ve got to find new mechanisms, new departments, new deputy ministers, policies, new legislation to close the gap and to finally enforce treaties according to the spirit and intent. To me, this is an opportunity,” he said.

Bellegarde predicts new law recognizing UNDRIP to come in new year

NDP MP Romeo Saganash, pictured in the House of Commons foyer Nov. 29, re-introduced Bill C-262 as a private member’s bill in April 2016. The Liberals endorsed the bill in November, but may table its own UNDRIP bill next year. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. Bellegarde said he believes the Liberals will introduce a bill recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) before May or June 2018, in order to get it passed before Parliament is prorogued for the 2019 federal election.

In November, Ms. Wilson-Raybould gave her government’s endorsement of NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s  (Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, Que.) private member’s bill, Bill C-262, that would require the federal government to harmonize its laws with UNDRIP’s provisions. Mr. Bellegarde said it’s likely that the Liberal government will propose its own legislation, however, and said if he were in the government’s shoes, “that’s what I would do.”

Canada objected to UNDRIP until May 2016, when the new Liberal government signalled it would work towards eventually implementing its provisions. In the past, the federal government worried recognizing UNDRIP’s “free, prior and informed consent” provision would be interpreted as granting Indigenous groups veto power on development projects on their land.

“Like I say, veto, veto, veto. Put it on the shelf. It’s about a respectful dialogue,” Mr. Bellegarde said.

“Before you build a mine or a pipeline, build a respectful relationship with the rights and title holders. Get that right, you won’t have any legal challenges. You won’t have any need for discussions on veto.”

Mr. Bellegarde said depending on the project, federal and provincial government are only halfheartedly embracing the idea of free, prior and informed consent. He said British Columbia’s Site C dam is an example of treaty rights not being respected.

“I’ve asked premiers for simple policy change: Before they give a licence or permit to any industry or company operating in the provincial boundary, they better make sure the company has a strategy in place for First Nations involvement in terms of procurement,” he said.


The Hill Times

AFN’s 2015 influential ridings:

No. Riding MP Party Margin of Victory
1. Labrador, N.L. Yvonne Jones Liberal (incumbent) 7,099 votes
2. Long Range Mountains, N.L. Gudie Hutchings Liberal 25,804 votes
3. Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, N.S. Darren Fisher Liberal (gain) 17,650 votes
4. Kings-Hants, N.S. Scott Brison Liberal (incumbent) 24,349 votes
5. Sydney-Victoria, B.C. Mark Eyking Liberal (incumbent) 24,644 votes
6. Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, Que. Romeo Saganash NDP (incumbent) 1,684 votes
7. Avignon-La Mitis-Matane-Matapedia, Que. Remi Masse Liberal (gain) 6,737 votes
8. Becancour-Nicolet-Saurel, Que. Louis Plamondon Bloc Québécois (incumbent) 8,205 votes
9. Gaspésie-Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Que. Diane Lebouthillier Liberal (gain) 2,460 votes
10. Longueuil-Saint-Hubert, Que. Pierre Nantel NDP (incumbent) 703 votes
11. Louis- Saint-Laurent, Que. Gerard Deltell Conservative (gain) 18,785 votes
12. Manicouagan, Que. Marilene Gill Bloc Québécois (gain) 4,995 votes
13. Montmagny-L’Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, Que. Bernard Genereux Conservative (gain) 272 votes
14. Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, Ont. Carol Hughes NDP (incumbent) 2,405 votes
15. Brantford-Brant, Ont. Phil McColeman Conservative (incumbent) 6,452 votes
16. Kenora, Ont. Bob Nault Liberal (gain) 498 votes
17. London North Centre, Ont. Peter Fragiskatos Liberal (gain) 12,437 votes
18. Mississauga-Malton, Ont. Navdeep Bains Liberal (gain) 14,464 votes
19. Niagara Centre, Ont. Vance Badawey Liberal (gain) 2,295 votes
20. Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ont. Anthony Rota Liberal (gain) 11,032
21. Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Terry Sheehan Liberal (gain) 5,967 votes
22. Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont. John McKay Liberal (incumbent) 14,059 votes
23. Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont. Patty Hajdu Liberal (gain) 9,730 votes
24. Timmins-James Bay, Ont. Charlie Angus NDP (incumbent) 3,034 votes
25. Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man. Niki Ashton NDP (incumbent) 912 votes
26. Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa, Man. Robert Sopuck Conservative (incumbent) 7,000 votes
27. Elmwood- Transcona, Man. Daniel Blaikie NDP (gain) 61 votes
28. Winnipeg Centre, Man. Robert-Falcon Ouellette Liberal (gain) 8,981 votes
29. Winnipeg North, Man. Kevin Lamoureux Liberal (incumbent) 18,209 votes
30. Winnipeg South Centre, Man. Jim Carr Liberal (gain) 16,891 votes
31. Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask. Gerry Ritz Conservative (incumbent) 14,617 votes
32. Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Sask. Georgina Jolibois NDP (gain) 82 votes
33. Prince Albert, Sask. Randy Hoback Conservative (incumbent) 8,429 votes
34. Regina-Lewvan, Sask. Erin Weir NDP (gain) 132 votes
35. Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask. Andrew Scheer Conservative (incumbent) 5,342 votes
36. Regina-Wascana, Sask. Ralph Goodale Liberal (incumbent) 10,621 votes
37. Saskatoon West, Sask. Sheri Benson NDP (gain) 2,520 votes
38. Edmonton Griesbach, Alta. Kerry Diotte Conservative 2,848 votes
39. Cariboo-Prince George, B.C. Todd Doherty Conservative 2,767 votes
40. Courtenay-Alberni, B.C. Gord Johns NDP (gain) 6,868 votes
41. Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, B.C. Alistair MacGregor NDP (incumbent) 7,515 votes
42. Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, B.C. Jati Sidhu Liberal (gain) 1,038 votes
43. Nanaimo-Ladysmith, B.C. Sheila Malcolmson NDP (gain) 6,898 votes
44. Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, B.C. Randall Garrison NDP (incumbent) 5,214 votes
45. Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C. Nathan Cullen NDP (incumbent) 11,595 votes
46. South Okanagan-West Kootenay, B.C. Richard Cannings NDP (gain) 4,952 votes
47. Surrey Centre, B.C. Randeep Sarai Liberal (gain) 6,479 votes
48. Surrey-Newton, B.C. Sukh Dhaliwal Liberal (gain) 13,267 votes
49. North Island-Powell River, B.C. Rachel Blaney NDP (gain) 8,500 votes
50. Yukon Larry Bagnell Liberal (gain) 5,959 votes
51. Northwest Territories Michael McLeod Liberal (gain) 3,389 votes

—Source: Assembly of First Nations

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