OTTAWA – Everyone should vote – even community leaders who strive to be non-partisan – the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said Wednesday as he reversed an earlier decision not to cast a ballot on Oct. 19. Just a week ago, the AFN issued a statement encouraging First Nations people to vote in the federal election.
At the time, however, Chief Perry Bellegarde revealed that, as a personal choice, he had never voted in a national election and wasn’t planning to do so this time either.
After returning home to Saskatchewan last weekend, Bellegarde got an earful from his constituents, who told him he needs to lead by example.
IN DEPTH: Federal Election 2015
“I listened to a lot of First Nations elders and chiefs and citizens and young people, right from across the territories,” Bellegarde said.
“The message to me was consistent and very clear. It’s important for me to get out and vote because we’re urging First Nations citizens to get out and vote and it just makes sense for the national chief to be part of that as well.”
Bellegarde says he didn’t vote in the past in the interest of being non-partisan, having been told that aboriginal leaders in Canada must work with the entire Crown, regardless of the party that’s in power.
But he now says he’ll vote because he doesn’t want to give aboriginal voters a reason not to go to the polls.
“I don’t want my not voting to be an excuse for First Nations people not to participate in the upcoming election.”
The Assembly of First Nations has concluded aboriginal voters could be a deciding factor in as many as 51 ridings.
And in a close race, voter turnout could be crucial in determining the outcome.
Turnout in elections by Aboriginal Peoples has typically been abysmally low. The average turnout for eligible voters on First Nations reserves in 2011 was estimated at 44 per cent, well below the overall 61 per cent turnout, according to Elections Canada.
Bellegarde said he has not yet decided who he will vote for and won’t make his decision public, although he has been encouraged by statements issued by the Liberals and New Democrats.
“The Liberals have talked about the major investments in (aboriginal) education, to close the gap that exists,” he said.
“Both (Liberals and New Democrats) have made comments about calling an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” he added.
“So the theme is starting to resonate.”
The AFN is encouraging all parties to commit to aboriginal priorities that also include increased funding for First Nations training, child welfare, health care and police services.
The organization has delivered voting kits to all First Nations chiefs, with information on the voting process, how to get ballot boxes to remote locations and the new voter identification rules brought in by the Conservatives under the Fair Elections Act.
The law requires every voter to produce one piece of government-issued ID that includes their name, photo and address, such as a driver’s license. Failing that, two pieces of ID must be shown, one of which must include the voter’s address. Critics have warned the proof of residency rule could prevent people from voting,
particularly on reserves where there are often no addresses.
To overcome that new hurdle, the AFN voter kits include form letters that chiefs or band managers can sign to verify residency for eligible voters.