09/02/2015 12:40 EDT | Updated 09/02/2016 01:12 EDT

Assembly of First Nations outlines election priorities

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde has outlined his election priorities Wednesday, as the 2015 campaign sees renewed focus on mobilizing First Nations votes.

Fifty-one ridings across Canada have been identified by the AFN as potential swing ridings where the outcome could be determined by the turnout of aboriginal voters. 

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(Nunavut, with its large Inuit population, is not on the AFN's list of ridings, because the Inuit are represented by their own organization.)

Historically, the aboriginal vote has been difficult to mobilize, with low voter turnout on reserves in particular.

In 2011, the only place where the on-reserve voter turnout approached the national level (61 per cent) was the Yukon riding, where 57 per cent of the on-reserve voters cast a ballot. While many regions saw on-reserve voter turnout percentages in the high 40s, in Quebec it was as low as 28 per cent, according to a list provided by the AFN.

Democratic participation among aboriginal voters is further complicated by a belief held by some that, because they consider the First Nations sovereign, the federal government of Canada does not speak for them. So why vote?

While the turnout issue is not new, this election presents a new challenge for those trying to improve voter engagement in federal elections.

In 2015, new voter eligibility rules are in place that the AFN says could make it more difficult to cast ballots. Aboriginal voters may not have the documents required to meet the new identification requirements at polling stations.

Some First Nations are holding identification clinics to help their members get what they need to vote.

Elections Canada has given $475,000 to the AFN to help inform aboriginal voters about their right to vote and explain how to do it.

'Gap' for infrastructure, education

The AFN is trying to mobilize voters around what it calls a gap in the funding available to First Nations communities in comparison with others For infrastructure and education in particular, band councils have fewer resources to make improvements than other municipal leaders.

All the major federal parties are running candidates who are First Nations, Métis or Inuit. The numbers of those nominated so far are:

- New Democrats: 22

- Liberals: 16

- Conservatives: 3

- Greens: 4

First Nations issues received some attention on the campaign trail Monday, as CBC News reported that an RCMP database to track murdered and missing indigenous women was overdue and over budget. 

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair used an event in Saskatoon, that day to announce funding for women's shelters and pledge that a government led by him will formulate a plan to end violence against indigenous women in particular.

Mulcair repeated his view that an "underlying attitude of racism" explains why no inquiry into missing and murdered women has been held. He said New Democrats would change that, and that it's time for a prime minister who cares about these issues.

Conservatives maintained Monday that they continue to fund on-reserve women's shelters, and Leader Stephen Harper said his government prefers concrete action to further study for an already-documented issue.