OTTAWA - The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says aboriginal voters could make the difference between a majority and minority government in the next federal election.
Perry Bellegarde says his advocacy organization has identified 51 influential ridings, including several in western Canada, where First Nations voters could affect the outcome.
He said the AFN is now working to mobilize the vote.
"We didn't have the right to vote in federal politics until 1961," he said. "So now we've been allowed to participate, we are starting to harness that political energy, that political power."
Bellegarde says his organization wants to ensure aboriginal people make informed choices.
Specifically, he said they need to know which federal parties favour treaty implementation and support investments in areas such as housing, training and education.
Joseph Garcea, who heads the political science department at the University of Saskatchewan, said the AFN is also trying to send a strong message to political parties about the need for campaigns that resonate with aboriginal voters and First Nations communities.
"You might actually be able to influence the parties in terms of the way they are going to articulate a platform and in terms of the extent to which they are going to get out there and try and mobilize that vote as well," Garcea said.
The AFN is also working with Elections Canada to help First Nations gain access to voting tools.
The Fair Elections Act, which passed amid great controversy in the Commons, eliminated the process of vouching at polling stations. That practice had allowed properly identified voters to vouch for someone who lacked proper identification.
The changes have created some concern among First Nations.
"We want to make sure it is easy and seamless," Bellegarde said. "With the new passage of that bill, it is almost like voter suppression because there is a lot of information that is required."
The legislation also ended the use of voter information cards issued by Elections Canada as a means of identification. Voters are now required to provide identification and proof of residency.
"Sometimes on the reserve that's not always there, easily accessible," Bellegarde said.
Garcea said Bellegarde understands the impact of the aboriginal vote partly because the national chief is from Saskatchewan. The First Nations vote has been very influential in that province, especially in its northern ridings, Garcea said.
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