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What Made This Election A Historic Win For First Nations Issues

11/03/2015 08:20 EST | Updated 11/03/2016 05:12 EDT
Lucas Oleniuk via Getty Images
TORONTO, ON- OCTOBER 19: A voting sign on the voting centre of Birchmount Bluffs Community Centre during the 2015 Canadian federal election in the riding of Scarborough Southwest Monday evening. Lucas Oleniuk-Toronto Star (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The election of Justin Trudeau has been variously described as historic. And it was.

Another less talked about historic moment was the election of 10 First Nations MPs. Add to this that a record-breaking 54 Aboriginal candidates put their names forward during the election.

Each of these candidates ran in one of the 51 swing ridings identified by Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Chief Perry Bellegarde. Bellegrade was blunt and clear that the Aboriginal vote could make a difference between a majority and minority government. We know which party he did not want included on the winning side of the equation.

Chief Bellegarde's leadership on this issue is important. It is no secret that First Nations people have a record of not voting in Canadian federal elections. There are valid historical reasons for this despite the profound influence the federal government has on lives both off and on reserve -- everything from education, to health care, to clean water, to the issue of murdered or missing indigenous women and girls.

The good news for us who want more indigenous votes is that other leaders supported Chief Bellegrade's view. Post-election, they are continuing to speak out. For example, as reported by CTV, "On Tuesday after election day, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, spoke at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in Winnipeg about the election results."

North Wilson was pleased with the turnout in the election and sent her congratulations to the Liberal Party. She believes more than 11,000 new voters in northern Manitoba went out to the polls.

Polling stations across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario ran out of ballots for the first time in recent memory. This caused Election Canada officials to scramble to ensure that there were ballots available for all the unexpected voters in those regions. Some reserves had an increase in voter turnout by more than 20 per cent from 2011.

In addition to the various issues described above and more, a key irritant was the so-called Fair Elections Act passed by the Conservative government. Many Aboriginal activists had seen this as a way of marginalizing First Nations in their efforts to participate in the democratic process. The act's disenfranchisement strategy had the opposite effect than intended, by pushing First Nations to get involved to ensure change.

For example, CBC News reported that voter participation in the riding of Kenora was up 73 per cent on reserve -- much of which was due to a strong get out the vote campaign by First Nations activists.

Results like this do not happen by accident. Groups who were encouraging electoral participation in many reserves across Canada organized buses to get voters to polling stations. Since there were issues across the country with voters' ID in the advanced polls, many Chiefs worked to ensure that young people voting for the first time had the proper ID on election day. The movement was called "Rock the Indigenous Vote."

Because we live in entertaining times, the voting movement resulted in a key celebrity endorsement. Ashley Callingbull, the First Nations Mrs. Universe winner from Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, got involved and showed her support by posting an Instagram selfie outside a polling station.

As it happens, First Nations issues were also on the minds of many other Canadians during the election. At Ensight, we did extensive post-election research including focus groups from Halifax to Vancouver. Unprompted, participants raised First Nations issues as a priority. Many felt Harper ignored these concerns and they now expect Trudeau to act.

Trudeau had read the public mood correctly. In addition to an inquiry on missing and murdered women, he promised an additional $200 million for employment training as well as increasing the funding available for aboriginal education by $2.6 billion. Now that Trudeau has raised expectations and many Indigenous leaders have put their names and resources behind rocking the vote, what is needed?

The AFN had previously identified their priorities for the 2015 election campaign in a report entitled Closing the Gap. This plan identifies six primary themes:

Strengthening First Nations, Families and Communities through closing the education gap of First Nations children.

Sharing and Equitable Funding by lifting the cap on federal funding and enhancing the relationship between the government and First Nations in regards to their fiscal relationship with the government.

Uphold Rights though repealing bill C-51 and ensuring accountability to First Nations from the federal government.

Respecting the Environment by creating an open line of communication between First Nations and the government to ensure the environment is protected for the future through creating a standard consent process with First Nations.

Revitalizing Indigenous Languages by increasing the promotion and revitalization of indigenous languages.

Truth and Reconciliation by enacting the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions within the AFN and act on the recommendations made by the commission.

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