by Mark Rushton
In most Lower Mainland federal electoral districts, the First Nations vote is relatively insignificant. Not so in the new riding of Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon.
It wouldn’t surprise me if aboriginals represent the largest ethnic bloc in the riding; their numbers large along the north bank of the Fraser from Mission to Agassiz and perhaps the majority in the Fraser and Thompson canyon areas.
First Nations are also predominant in communities such as Lytton, Ashcroft and Lillooet so if a candidate in this riding wants to win, he (only “he” candidates are running) best be courting the native vote, because Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde is urging all indigenous people to get out and cast a ballot.
There are 51 electoral districts across the country where First Nations can make the difference, and Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon is one of them.
“(These) ridings can make a difference between a majority and a minority government. People are starting to see that,” Bellegarde told a general assembly of the AFN in Montreal recently.
“Show that our people count. Show that our people matter. Show that we can make a difference. Show that our issues will not be put to the side.”
If that battle cry is taken up, what might have been seen as a relatively safe Conservative seat elected by Abbotsford and Mission residents will be up for grabs.
Bellegarde also points out that native youth are the fastest growing segment of Canada’s population, and he obviously wants them, along with the rest of First Nations to be heard loud and clear this election.
I’m also certain that Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, who has long been a powerful voice in B.C. politics and First Nations relationships, will be mobilizing the vote, particularly in those ridings in our province where natives can make a difference.
Along with the electoral district in which I live, B.C. ridings targeted by the Assembly of First Nations include five on Vancouver Island, two in central B.C., one in South Okanagan/Kootenay and two in Surrey.
Only one has an incumbent Conservative, seven have no incumbent running.
And lest anyone dismiss the potential electoral strength of First Nations, remember they have been recently empowered by the so-called Roger William decision that granted historic land title to the Nemiah band of the Chilcotin, along with other court decisions that now require governments and anyone else to “consult and accommodate” them.
Such massive projects as the Site C power dam on the Peace and Petronas’ LNG plant near Prince Rupert also await First Nations approval or rejection before they can attempt to proceed.
Aboriginals, long overlooked in Canadian politics, now certainly have the potential to become an electoral force.
It’s anyone’s guess at this time if Bellegarde’s call to ballot box arms will resonate with First Nations to cast ballots in greater numbers than ever before, but if I were running in Mission-Matsqui-Etc. I’d certainly be out there combing the reserves (with permission, of course) for votes.
From what I can gather, the current government is not held in the highest regard by First Nations leadership, while both Mulcair and Trudeau have committed to improving relationships should either form government.
One way or another, the Assembly of First Nations wants to make a breakthrough in a culture that has traditionally shied away from federal and provincial politics.
I think they may just do that this time around, and conceivably have a significant role in who will represent me, and everyone else, in Ottawa come October 19.