In all of Canada’s 154-year history, just 48 Indigenous men and women have been elected to the House of Commons.
The last two Parliaments, after the 2015 and 2019 elections, saw the high-water mark for Indigenous representatives, with 11 elected each time.
But for many Indigenous leaders — and for some party leaders — that’s still far too few.
“I think that, ideally, the way that we should be in Canada is we need to have our own voice,” said Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Inc. on Thursday in Winnipeg during a campaign event organized by the federal NDP. “But until that time comes, we have to utilize these parties to move our issues forward. So I think that the greater preference would be to have our own voice in Parliament as opposed to using these existing systems.”
MKO represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew is one of a very small group of Indigenous persons that have ever led a provincial party — there have been no Indigenous leaders yet of major federal parties — and, as he stood beside federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at a campaign stop Thursday in the Ontario riding of Kenora, he noted how important it was for young Indigenous people to look at their legislatures and see representation from their own communities.
“I know representation matters to young people,” Kinew said. “But I hope everyone in Canada recognizes how much representation matters, because, for too long, people from some of our communities weren’t being represented in some of the halls of power.”
So far in this 44th general election, only Singh and the NDP have had a significant focus on Indigenous candidates and issues and campaigned in person in ridings where there is a significant Indigenous presence.
In the campaign’s first week, for example, he visited Cowesses First Nation in Saskatchewan. In the just-concluded second week, he was in the Manitoba ridings of Winnipeg North and Winnipeg Centre and the Ontario ridings of Kenora and Thunder Bay—Rainy River — four ridings where the New Democrats have an Indigenous person as their candidate. They are among 25 Indigenous candidates running for the NDP.
“We’re proud that we’ve been able to encourage and support and recruit great, amazing candidates and candidates that represent our country,” Singh said Friday in Thunder Bay, Ont.
A spokesperson for the Conservative campaign said the party has six Indigenous candidates in this election, including its lone Indigenous incumbent, Marc Dalton, running for re-election in the B.C. riding of Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge.
The Liberal Party did not respond to a question about the number of Indigenous candidates the party was running but the six Liberal Indigenous MPs in the last Parliament, including cabinet minister Dan Vandal, are running for re-election in the next Parliament.
As for Singh and the NDP, they are winning praise from Indigenous leaders.
“I think that on a personal level, he’s a tremendous leader, regardless of the flag that flies behind him,” Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Thursday, standing beside Singh during a NDP rally at The Forks in Winnipeg. “I always I always support strong leadership, sound leadership.”
The New Democrats are also alone among the major parties in that donors to the party can designate their funds to be deposited in what the NDP call their Indigenous Victory Fund, a pot of money used specifically to recruit and train Indigenous candidates and give them extra resources during a campaign.
And those extra resources are often crucial. Candidates in the riding of Kenora, for example, are crisscrossing a territory the size of Germany, and many voters live in remote communities best reached — or only reached — by air.
“There is no easy way to do it,” said Sol Mamakwa, the New Democrat Ontario MPP for the northern Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong. Mamakwa was among those who joined Singh and other federal New Democrats at an airport rally in Kenora Thursday.
“It’s really unique that we have to be able to fly to communities. Whether it’s one community per day, whether it’s two communities per day, whether it’s three communities per day — And that’s the challenge that we have. And do we have the resources to be able to do that?”
The NDP candidate in Kenora — an Indigenous woman — is Janine Seymour. She is trying to defeat Conservative Eric Melillo, a non-Indigenous 23-year-old first elected in 2019, who has proven to be a popular MP in the riding with a reputation for close attention to constituency work.
Seymour, at that airport rally Thursday, said one of the big challenges for campaigning politicians in remote northern ridings is that isolated communities are reluctant to welcome travelling outsiders for fear that the COVID-19 virus will travel with them.
“This election was called during a pandemic time and it’s posing great challenges,” Seymour said. “Some people are quite hesitant to be close and to have me come to their residence.”
Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives responded to questions about any special initiatives they might have to recruit or train Indigenous candidates.
In this election, parties that spend more to support candidates in Canada’s big northern ridings could see a payoff because so many of those ridings are in play.
The ridings of Yukon and Nunavut are definitely up for grabs, while ridings in northern Saskatchewan, northern Ontario and northern Quebec will all be closely contested. In a close election, the results in those ridings — where Indigenous voters make up a significant percentage of the constituency — could have an outsized effect on the national results.
And Indigenous candidates in those ridings may have an inside track versus non-Indigenous candidates — thanks to endorsements from Indigenous leaders.
Consider, for example, the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill–Keewatinook Aski, where the incumbent, non-Indigenous New Democrat Niki Ashton, is seeking re-election.
The same chiefs who stood beside Singh in Winnipeg on Thursday and praised his leadership are not endorsing Singh’s candidate, Ashton, in that northern Manitoba riding.
The Liberal candidate in Ashton’s riding is an Indigenous woman, Shirley Robinson.
“I think that it is time for a fresh start in the north. And I absolutely support Shirley Robinson in her candidacy,” Dumas said in Winnipeg.
Robinson, in fact, asked for the chiefs’ endorsement earlier this month precisely because she is an Indigenous person and Ashton is not.
“What we need is a strong voice from a native speaker inside the halls of influence,” Robinson told the MKO chiefs earlier this month, according to a report in the Thompson Citizen.
Needless to say, Singh and the NDP are committed to keeping Ashton in the House — even as they seek to elect Indigenous New Democrats elsewhere in the country.
“It should be really clear that I support my candidate Niki Ashton,” Singh said the next day during a stop in Thunder Bay, Ont. “She has been a strong voice for Indigenous people and has a proven record, and New Democrats in general have shown that we are backing up our words with action.”