The next parliament will be home to 10 First Nations MPs -- eight of whom are Liberals. The Fair Elections Act was aimed at suppressing native voters. But, Michael Harris writes, it did just the opposite:
Despite Harper’s best efforts to suppress the indigenous vote, aboriginals led the nation in a stunning spike in voter turnout on October 19. Several reserves ran out of ballots, and voter turnout was up by 270 per cent in some places where the indigenous vote was crucial.
If the Fair Elections Act was supposed to blunt the energy of the Idle No More movement by making it harder to cast a ballot, it actually ended up galvanizing the native vote. Just ask defeated Natural Resources minister Greg Rickford, who saw the native vote in his former riding of Kenora rise by 73 per cent.
Canada's native peoples will no longer sit on the sidelines. And they have an agenda:
The road to the grand reconciliation that Trudeau’s victory makes possible leads straight through the water supplies of First Nations communities. On the campaign trail, Trudeau pointed out that 93 different native communities were under 133 varying boil-water advisories. For seventeen years, the community of Shoal Lake has had to hike across the ice to get its drinking water.
More than a decade ago, the bill to give aboriginals the most basic human right of all — access to clean drinking water — was $600 million. The new prime minister will be looking at a much higher cost — and he has only given himself five years to get the job done. But he must get it done.
But the deeper problem is that while Canada’s First Nations have experienced a population boom, the growth in their funding has been capped at two per cent since 1995. It is virtually impossible to supply essential childhood and family services without raising that cap — unless the government concludes that a series of one-offs grants will fix these vast, systemic inequities. History shows that such an approach is folly.
The Indian Act itself must be boldly reimagined. As it now stands, its main purpose is to limit who can be defined as an Indian. The judicial argument is moving in exactly the opposite direction. The Supreme Court is now examining the question of whether non-status Indians and Metis are also the federal government’s responsibility under the Constitution. If the answer is yes, the Indian Act will be less than useless — and Ottawa will be facing an aboriginal population inflated by hundreds of thousands of people entitled to federal programs.
As important as all these things are — water, education and health, adequate funding and modernized legislation — it all ends up dwarfed by the monumental issue of treaty rights.
There is a lot which needs to be done. And now, Harris writes, is the time to put a First Nations MP in charge of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.