Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

Canada’s election was one for the history books: A third-place Liberal party won enough seats to form a government; Aboriginal voters cast so many ballots that in some areas they ran out; and across the country people demanded a reversal of a decade of Conservative policies.

Not that elections fix everything. In Canada, like the U.S., there is no ideal representation for Native voters. One phrase I heard on Aboriginal People’s Television Network last night summed it up well: A lesser of three evils. (Canada has five major parties, three of them with a chance of forming a government.) And, like the U.S., Canada’s elections are not exactly democratic. More about that shortly.

Aboriginal voters appeared to have turned out in record numbers, electing ten Native people to Parliament (up from seven). But if that sounds like a lot, consider this sentence from the Canadian Broadcasting Service: “While there were a record 54 indigenous candidates running in this election, Indigenous people will end up occupying just three per cent of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.” Of course that compares to the United States where the two American Indians in Congress make up 0.37 percent of that body. At least in Canada there are enough Aboriginal voices to form a caucus; there’s the potential to raise voices for and against significant pieces of legislation and budgets.

That brings me to Lesson One from Canada: You gotta run to win.

As the Indigenous Politics blog pointed out there were 54 First Nation, Metis and Inuit candidates running nationwide. The New Democratic Party had the most, 22 candidates, and only two of those candidates won seats, Georgina Jolibois, Dene, in Saskatchewan, and Romeo Saganash, Cree, in Quebec.

So apply this lesson to the United States. What if we had candidates running in every state where there is a significant population of American Indians and Alaska Natives? Start with Alaska’s only congressional district, the seat held by Don Young. I know it’s been done before. But there should be a Native face of opposition running for that seat every election. Same for Arizona’s first congressional district and on and on. Oklahoma. Montana. New Mexico. South Dakota. North Dakota. Washington. Oregon. California. You can’t win without a candidate. Indian Country needs more candidates for key races as well as for some of the unlikely districts.

Just from a tactical point of view the Liberals did this brilliantly. Five years ago the party was all but dead. As a piece from CTV News said in 2011: “Canada’s Liberals were arguably the most successful political party in Western democracy in the 20th century. They are starting the 21st century on the cusp of irrelevance at best, and facing extinction at worst.”

You gotta run to win.

Second lesson from Canada. Yes, mainstream politics do matter. I know, and respect, the argument that Native people should stay out of general politics. That’s there is no difference between any of the parties. Factually that is not true. The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper is a textbook case showing the problem with that premise. First Nations were only “consulted” when there was already an agreement for more resource extraction. If the answer was no, well, that was ignored. And, when there was a widespread demand for a government inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls the answer was a hostile no. The new government will not be perfect but it will be good. And the new government will at least investigate and try to do something about the epidemic of violence against Native women.

One powerful story that Canada has is that of Elijah Harper. More than anyone else the late member of the Manitoba provincial legislature showed what one vote could do, ending a constitutional process that would not have served First Nations.

Third lesson from Canada. Turnout is key. Again, as pointed out often, if Aboriginal voters had voted in previous elections there would not have been a Conservative government. Not voting is a powerful statement. It’s the same in the United States. American Indian and Alaska Natives are pretty good voters during presidential election years; then we disappear. That’s backwards. We’d have far more pull in a low turnout, off-cycle national election. Of course if we have fifty-something candidates running for Congress, that could change for the better.

The fourth lesson from Canada. Elections are not the end of the process, but they do offer a new beginning. The Liberal Party has many strengths but it’s probably not going to be the leader on climate change, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, or even rethinking energy in a big way. Like U.S. Democrats there is a lot of corporate influence and money that’s directed their way. (I think market forces will kill Keystone anyway.) But all that means is you keep pushing. Elections are only one step.

You gotta keep running to win.

And the final lesson? Canada like the United States needs a better democracy. This election is considered a huge win for Liberals. But they only won 39.5 percent of the vote. The Conservatives had 31.9 percent and the New Democrats earned 19.7 percent. The Green Party captured 3.5 percent — and yet only ended up with one seat. (That’s not as bad as the U.S. where Republicans won 52 percent of the votes for the House, controlling 57 percent of the seats.) The reason for this in both countries is the district system or first past the post. It’s a system that most of the world has rejected in favor of elections that are more representative of all the citizens in a country.

If Canada’s elections, for example had been held in a system with proportional representation, today the Liberals and the New Democrats would be working together to try and form a government. Then that would be a government that would actually represent most Canadians. We can’t have that. It would scare the hell out of Washington.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.On Twitter @TrahantReports

From the Liberal Party web site: Celebrating Prime Minister elect Justin Trudeau.

From the Liberal Party web site: Celebrating Prime Minister elect Justin Trudeau.

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