OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations says aboriginal voters could be deciding factors in as many as 51 ridings and, in a close race, could determine the outcome of the Oct. 19 federal election — if they actually cast ballots.
But AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde may have undercut his organization's campaign to mobilize aboriginal voters with a frank admission that he's never voted in the past and doesn't intend to do so this time either.
"It's a very personal choice," Bellegarde told a news conference Wednesday.
He said he's never voted because he's been in various First Nations leadership roles and wanted to preserve the appearance of impartiality.
Moreover, Bellegarde said he was following the advice of First Nations elders who advised him against voting, arguing that the Crown has treaty obligations that must be honoured no matter which party forms government.
"Out of respect for those old people, I think that's why I haven't voted."
Such views are not uncommon among aboriginal peoples and are, at least partly, responsible for abysmally low turnout in elections. Elections Canada estimates that the average turnout for eligible voters on First Nations reserves is 44 per cent, well below the overall 61 per cent turnout in 2011.
Pressed by reporters to explain how he hopes to encourage others to vote if he won't do it himself, Bellegarde suggested he'll "revisit" his decision to refrain from voting. But in an interview a short time later, he dug in his heels, stressing his need to remain strictly neutral so that he can work with whomever forms government.
"If you have to choose, then you lose that impartiality and non-partisanship," he said.
At the news conference, Bellegarde unveiled the AFN's election priorities, to which it wants all parties to commit. The priorities — including increased funding for First Nations education, training, child welfare, health care and police services, creation of a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and an action plan to address violence against aboriginal women — are aimed at "closing the gap" between aboriginals and other Canadians.
"First Nations are a major factor in this election," Bellegarde said. "Our voices matter, our priorities matter and our votes matter."
Mobilizing aboriginal voters is necessary, he said, "because if you're running to be a member of Parliament and you know First Nations people don't vote, are you really going to be concerned about their issues?"
Bellegarde later acknowledged his own refusal to vote might hurt his message "a little." Nevertheless, he still expects turnout among aboriginal voters to increase, due to social media campaigns that are engaging young aboriginals and education campaigns launched by the AFN and others.
The AFN has sent voting kits to all First Nations chiefs, with information on how to get ballot boxes to remote locations, the voting process and the new rules on identification each voter will need to produce.
The Conservative government's Fair Elections Act requires every voter to produce two pieces of ID, one of which must include the voter's address. Experts have warned the proof of residency rule could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, particularly those on reserves where there are often no addresses.
To overcome that new hurdle, which Bellegarde called "voter suppression," the AFN's voter kit includes a form letter that chiefs or band managers can sign to verify residency for eligible voters.
The AFN is also planning a video campaign, hoping to get some "big names" to announce that they're voting and urging others to do the same, Bellegarde said.
Despite his vow of impartiality, Bellegarde admitted that First Nations' relations with Stephen Harper's "unnecessarily adversarial" Conservative government have been rocky. He called proposals by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to improve the relationship "a start."
Mulcair and Trudeau both signalled Wednesday their agreement with the AFN's priorities.
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