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COMMENTARY: Politics Through an Indigenous Lens: Are the Parties Missing an Opportunity? – Chris Sankey

Chris Sankey is president of Blackfish Group of Companies and a former elected Indigenous councillor.
Originally publihed in the The Hill Times
Indigenous leaders have to balance the environment and culture while growing the economy.
This can be a playbook for party leaders.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have a strong foundation, but Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has established a good blueprint for attracting Indigenous voters. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade

Although it is commonly believed that Indigenous support for Conservatives is low, an APTN poll taken in the weeks before the 2019 federal election found that Indigenous support was higher for the Conservatives, under Andrew Scheer, than for any other party, at 26 per cent versus 21 per cent for the Liberals, 17 per cent for the NDP, 16 per cent for the Greens, and three per cent for The People’s Party.

This is not surprising if you consider some demographics. Indigenous peoples are far more likely to live in rural, remote, and Western regions; are proud of their community and have a greater interest in practical, hands-on learning and occupations rather than a formal education. Like their rural neighbours, they have recreational interests in hunting, fishing, camping, and snowmobiling, with higher ownership of permits and guns; and are more likely to consider themselves religious or embrace cultural beliefs. Finally, decades of colonialism and imposed dependence have left many Indigenous people mistrustful of the state, leading them to favour self-sufficiency and limited government.

That said, the Conservatives as a political party have done too little to attract Indigenous people to their platform. They pander too much to their far-right base, who are typically less tolerant of diversity, immigration, and social programs, and they don’t seem to have Indigenous people at the table. Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole’s communications during the Wet’suwet’en conflict made it obvious they have no close Indigenous advisors on their teams. Their messages did not translate to any grassroots movements where a mass population was watching on the global stage. While everyone wants the economy to jumpstart, Indigenous peoples need to see that the Conservatives will have a serious environmental protection plan.

By contrast, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has a charismatic personality and has showed an understanding of Canada’s history with Indigenous peoples. Of anyone, I felt he could have made a real impact in understanding what it would take for Indigenous peoples to get out of poverty and into prosperity. Unfortunately, he lost seats and popularity because of his ethnicity. Even though the Liberal and Conservative parties are considered racist by a lot of Indigenous and immigrant voters, I believe it was Singh’s ethnicity that led to a loss of votes amongst its union base—an older, blue collar worker vote—as well as amongst new immigrants and Indigenous voting base. Despite the wonderful country we live in and how far we have come, when it comes to being a country of diversity, we still have much work to do.

Furthermore, the NDP missed the mark when it came to their stance on our energy sector and their approach to climate change that would see many projects cancelled. Unfortunately for Singh, what he understands from our past, and what he perceives the vast majority of Indigenous people want, are two different things. In the early ’90s I once asked my late mother why she supported the NDP? Her reply: “Because they support union workers and that’s who my parents support.” Indigenous people want greater independence and less reliance on government assistance through good middle-class jobs. That’s not what the 2019 NDP was offering.

Jason Kenney, whether you like him or not, has established a good blueprint for attracting Indigenous and visible minority voters. As the minister of immigration under Stephen Harper, he developed a progressive strategy that not only was good for business and the labour market, but also attracted large portions of suburban immigrant voters, especially in Ontario, to the Conservative Party. Now as premier of Alberta, he has established the billion-dollar Indigenous Opportunities Corporation and has working relationships with many Indigenous businesspersons, chiefs, and Métis leaders. Kenney has shown that a conservative party can be a diverse party.

It is not a mystery why a large portion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people voted Liberal.  Justin Trudeau’s position on climate change and Indigenous relations attracted a younger voting base. The Liberals have done more than any other federal party in memory to make Indigenous policies a top priority.

While much of their work was well intentioned, I felt Trudeau received poor advice. He listened to specific leaders that I felt not only hurt him, but also the country’s economy. Bills C-69 and C-48 only served to divide the nations and alienate the many Indigenous communities that rely on resource economies. Similarly, the signing of the Wet’suwet’en MOU will pose problems not only for his government, but for all Indigenous communities in Canada. The government does not understand our hereditary systems, which are complex. To them, it sounds trendy and noble. Unfortunately, our communities have a lot of work ahead of us to settle our governance questions. Trying to sign over lands and rights to families will lead to trouble and further divide.

Indigenous communities want the freedom and independence to make choices for ourselves and not be held back by social welfare. They have an inherent distrust in the government following decades and centuries of harmful policies and poor relations. And they have far more in common with rural, blue-collar voters than with the average professional living in Toronto or Montreal.

There is an opportunity here for all parties to provide real and practical solutions, if they have the wherewithal to take advantage of it. Indigenous leaders have to balance the environment and culture while growing the economy. This can be a playbook for party leaders.

Chris Sankey is president of Blackfish Group of Companies and a former elected Indigenous councillor.

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