Trudeau’s Liberals benefited from record Indigenous voter turnout in 2015. Can they again?

Trudeau says Indigenous youth really want more ‘places to store their canoes and paddles’
WATCH FROM 2017: Trudeau says Indigenous youth really want more "places to store their canoes and paddles."

During the 2015 federal election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau coasted to victory in part thanks to Indigenous voters determined to evict former prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives from office.

Some, too, were captivated by Trudeau’s message of hope. On the campaign trail, he spoke early and often about Indigenous issues, promising an inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and speaking enthusiastically about clean drinking water and reconciliation.

READ MORE: Anger at Stephen Harper, disenfranchisement fuelled turnout of Aboriginal voters

Indigenous voter turnout spiked by 15 per cent that election, with some voter increases on First Nations so dramatic that communities actually ran out of ballots. In Kenora, Ont., where Conservative Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford was turfed (he is now an Ontario MPP), voting on First Nations jumped 74 per cent — nearly 3,000 extra voters.

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Lori Campbell, a two-spirit Cree-Métis woman from the Sixties Scoop generation who is the director of the Shatitsirótha’ Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre at St. Paul’s University College, was one of many drawn in by Trudeau’s sunny ways.

And yet, she says, the last four years have been something beyond disheartening.

“It’s another one of those things that happen to people who don’t usually have a voice,” Campbell says.

“You put your faith in something then get shut down again, and it starts to feel overwhelming, like what was the point?”

It was not one moment, she says, but a series of moments — including the issues that plagued the MMIWG inquiry — that solidified in 2018 when Trudeau’s government bought a pipeline for $4.5 billion and then defended his government’s environmental record.

WATCH: Federal Election 2019: Trudeau takes in western festival in St-Tite, QC

Federal Election 2019: Trudeau takes in western festival in St-Tite, QC
Federal Election 2019: Trudeau takes in western festival in St-Tite, QC

“I’m afraid we will lose some Indigenous people, Indigenous voices that voted last time because of that and I think that’s a shame,” Campbell says.

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It’s part of the reason she’s tossed her hat in the ring this election — Campbell is running as the NDP candidate in Waterloo and is not the only Indigenous person to cite Trudeau’s leadership failures as a reason to run.

Guy Gallant, a campaign spokesperson for Trudeau, said the the Liberals believe Canada’s most important relationship is with Indigenous people and that renewing that relationship and working to close “unacceptable gaps in outcomes in Indigenous communities” is something the party took “real and measurable action” on during its four years in power.

With respect to the Trans Mountain pipeline, Gallant pointed to comments Trudeau made on Sept. 13, noting that “a better future” includes partnership with Indigenous people, not just consultation.

“That’s why we are moving forward on proposals to allow indigenous communities and indigenous investors to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, but that’s why at the same time we’re listening very carefully to the indigenous communities who have concerns,” Trudeau said.

WATCH: Trudeau discusses partnership with Indigenous peoples during election campaign

Federal Election 2019: Trudeau discusses partnership with Indigenous peoples
Federal Election 2019: Trudeau discusses partnership with Indigenous peoples

Gallant also highlighted comments from Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegard last month, in which he said his job isn’t to endorse parties but that the Liberal government has “done more for First Nations people than any government has for the past 50 years.”

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So, is 2015’s Harper-and-Trudeau-fuelled voter increase a one-off or part of a trend? Will Trudeau’s record inspire more Indigenous voters to turn out for his party? Will they turn out to vote for other parties? Or will they stay home, shrugging their shoulders at the choices?

The short answer is: nobody knows yet.

The longer answer is that some are cautiously optimistic voter turnout will still be high but are also urging candidates to adopt a different approach to Indigenous issues, encouraging them to make Indigenous issues a campaign priority from the get-go.

WATCH: Trudeau apologizes for “smug” comments to Indigenous protestor

Trudeau apologizes for “smug” comments
Trudeau apologizes for “smug” comments

“Indigenous people are bright, brilliant, resilient, and we’ve always been here, will continue to be here,” says Naomi Sayers, an Indigenous lawyer from Garden River First Nation.

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“We always want to be at the table and we will try to get there if space is made.”

If Indigenous people have soured on anything these last four years, Sayers says, it’s Trudeau’s record of saying one thing but doing another — or doing nothing at all — not the act of casting a ballot.

“Having engaged voters who are Indigenous is hard to begin with because of how information is delivered to us,” she says. “It’s very rarely about us. The issues very rarely affect us.”

Sayers imagines Indigenous voters will be more inclined to lean NDP this time around, particularly after Trudeau kicked Jody Wilson-Raybould out of cabinet following the eruption of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

“People are just getting tired of him, and it shows.”

She continues: “You have people who are struggling to listen to what (Trudeau) says because what he says and what he does are two different things, or sometimes, he doesn’t do anything and doesn’t take responsibility.”

The impact the Liberals’ first-term record has on voter turnout is further compounded not by “lack of want or not being engaged,” Sayers says, but simply because Indigenous people are “always at capacity” — be it because of inequality, high rates of suicides among young people, access to clean water and health care, barriers for education and jobs or issues of treaty rights and self-governance.

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READ MORE: A man was ignored to death in an ER 10 years ago. It could happen again

“When we don’t have candidates who are engaged with us, it’s not that we don’t care, it’s just it’s harder for us to care when it isn’t a two-way street,” she says.

“It will really be dependent on individual candidates and the amount of resources put in engaging with us.”

If Brittany Luby, an Anishinaabe history professor at the University of Guelph, is going to give Trudeau voter credit, it will be for his “awareness of the power of Indigenous voters and a willingness to campaign among them.”

However, if people want that voting increase to stick, Luby says, the framing of the conversation needs to shift from one of Indigenous voter apathy to one of Indigenous people being systemically excluded from voting.

“We need to shift the conversation from ‘inspiration’ and ‘political influence’ (which suggests Indigenous voters need ‘motivation’) to conversations about how to modify our electoral process so that voting is as easy and accessible to First Nations as it is to Canadians generally,” Luby told Global News via email.

More than four per cent of Indigenous voters said proving identification was a barrier to voting in 2015, an impediment some people living on First Nations said they also experienced, according to an Elections Canada report.

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WATCH: Trudeau addresses lawsuits, court challenges on pipeline

Trudeau addresses lawsuits, court challenges on pipeline
Trudeau addresses lawsuits, court challenges on pipeline

Pamela Beebe was hopeful in 2015, particularly when she noticed Trudeau seemed to be the only candidate who spoke about Indigenous issues throughout his campaign rather than only near the end.

“I was eager for change,” says Beebe, who is a community builder from the Kainai Nation in southern Alberta. She wasn’t surprised by how many Indigenous people seemed to share her enthusiasm — several of her family members were motivated to vote for the first time.

And now? “I’m not as hopeful,” she says.

Kainai Nation still struggles with high suicide rates, young people dying as a result of the opioid crisis and access to clean drinking water.

Beebe finds that last issue particularly revealing of the government’s ability to follow through because, she says: “My community is really close to the U.S. border. You’d think they would have solved it by now, but if they can’t, how are they going to solve it for our northern (more rural) communities?”

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And what’s come of the promises Trudeau kept, Beebe wonders, like the MMIWG inquiry? There was no shortage of public space to discuss its use of the term “genocide”, but what traction did the inquiry get?

“You don’t hear anybody talking about it, saying: ‘Oh, I read the 231 calls to action and I think my work is addressing them,’” she says.

Gallant said Trudeau is “committed to a distinctions and region-based national action plan” to implement the calls for action, and that “work to set up the process” that will enable that plan is currently underway.

WATCH: Woman’s 25-year fight to find sister’s killer puts spotlight on MMIWG inquiry

Tangible solutions require engaging Indigenous people in their own communities, Beebe says, not limiting discussions to delegates from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and chief and council.

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Come consult with the elders in communities like hers that are still struggling, Beebe says.

“The government made a promise to work together, and they didn’t keep that promise.”

If they did, she says — if they do now — then solutions would be faster and more tangible, and Indigenous people would have a reason to engage. For now, Beebe says Trudeau has lost credibility, and she worries that loss of credibility will mean fewer Indigenous voters on Oct. 21.

That will likely be Trudeau’s challenge during his re-election campaign, Luby agrees.

He will have to convince Indigenous voters “that a country that adheres to the ‘rule of law’ and follows its ‘processes for consultations is willing to expose their colonial roots and seed an alternative future,” she says, a nod to the fact that Trudeau said during his 2015 campaign that First Nations would be able to veto natural resource projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline but said the opposite a year later.

“He must convince Indigenous voters that he sees First Nations as treaty partners, not interested parties.”

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