Events in Canada this week show why elections matter. Yes there will be better policies put in place: Perhaps a return to government-to-government relations with First Nations; more federal investment in Indigenous education; and, a serious, nationwide probe of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. All those things show a government moving in the right direction.
But there is something else: tone. The music of elections.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered the message that Aboriginal Canadians are significant intellectual contributors to Canada’s political discourse. Trudeau’s appointments, his first day of images, really set a high bar for what hope elections can stir in communities, including those representing First Nations, Inuit and Metis.
Most of us are surrounded by a narrative that says real shared power takes a long time. We have to move slow, methodically, bringing people along.
But that’s not what happened in Canada. Trudeau’s appointments were like a lightening bolt. In one instant the cabinet of Canada is representative of gender, of region, and, of Aboriginal people. When he was asked, “why?” about gender, the prime minister replied, “because it’s 2015.”
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde told the CBC that Trudeau’s appointments begin a “new era of reconciliation.”
“I was very impressed with the opening ceremony, but even more impressed that out of eight aboriginal members of Parliament that were elected, two have made it into cabinet,” said Bellegarde. “It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.”
The new minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould shows how a government can match diversity with extraordinary talent and experience. Much has been said about the attorney general’s role as a regional tribal chief and as an advocate for reconciliation with Aboriginal people. But she’s also been British Columbia crown prosecutor. The fact is she’s extraordinarily well qualified for this post. Wilson-Raybould is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and a descendant of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples, which are part of the Kwakwaa’wakw and also known as the Kwak’wala speaking peoples. When she was a child, her father said it was her goal to be Prime Minister.
That same richness of experience is true for the new minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Hunter Tootoo. Yes, he is Inuit and has a track record on issues such as economic development or housing. But he also was Speaker of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly.
The Tyee in Vancouver quoted Aaron Hill of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society saying Tootoo’s appointment could mean a “seismic shift” in Canada’s approach to First Nations fisheries.
Imagine what these kinds of appointments would be like in the United States: A leader of a fishing tribe named to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Or a tribal judge or attorney as the next United States Attorney General. Lightening bolt.
Canada, of course, is a different political system. Cabinet members must also be elected Members of Parliament. Here it would mean getting elected to Congress before you could be Interior Secretary. (In fact that opens an interesting debate about Canada’s Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In the U.S. system, it would be unthinkable for the Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs to not be a tribal member. And in Canada there has never been a native leader in that post.) Yet even with the political differences in Canada there is a shared sense of optimism after an election. Every government starts off with hope and the excitement of possibility of making people’s lives better.
And there is one more thing. Native Americans, like Aboriginal Canadians, are poised to have better representation in an imperfect democracy. To have a voice in the affairs of a country, the whole country. That voice started when fifty-four Aboriginal Canadians ran for federal office. That voice was confirmed when ten of those candidates won. That voice will only get stronger and clearer in the years to come.
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