Debunking the stereotype around the Indigenous vote in Alberta

Augustana history professor Daniel Sims dismisses the idea that the NDP automatically had the Indigenous vote in the recent provincial election.

Tia Lalani - 13 June 2019

Voter apathy, due in part to the history of Indigenous franchise in Canada, is one of the reasons why "none of the above" was the preferred candidate in polling stations where Indigenous peoples dominate, says history professor Daniel Sims. Photo courtesy of Element5 Digital from Pexels.

By Daniel Sims

In the wake of the provincial election, I wanted to address a few stereotypes surrounding the Indigenous vote in Alberta in particular and Canada in general. In part, this article is in response to the view perpetuated in the media that the New Democratic Party (NDP) automatically had the Indigenous vote. Such beliefs ignore the fact that the NDP and United Conservative Party (UCP) each ran three Indigenous candidates, while the Alberta Party ran five. (Given that Indigenous peoples represent 6.5% of the Albertan population none of these numbers is truly representative of the voter population, but that is a topic for another article).

More importantly, the perception that Indigenous peoples always vote NDP ignores the fact that, when one looks at official Elections Alberta results at polling stations where Indigenous peoples dominate (Alexis, Beaver Lake, Buffalo Lake, Brocket, Cold Lake First Nation, Kehewin, Kikino, Maskwacis, Morley, O'Chiese, Saddle Lake, Siksika, Sunchild, Tsuu T'ina and Whitefish Lake), "none of the above" was the preferred candidate. Yes, technically the NDP often had the most votes, but always below 50% of the vote, and in some cases, just a handful of votes more than the UCP. In one instance (Kikino), the UCP had the most votes.

In short, not every Indigenous voter is a card-carrying member of the NDP and hundreds of votes could potentially go any party. This reality is reflected in the platform of all of the major parties in the last provincial election and most of the minor ones. Every party, from the UCP to the Communist Party of Alberta, had a distinct Indigenous plank in its platform. The UCP, for example, promised to bring economic and social prosperity back to Indigenous communities, especially with regard to resource extraction. Indeed, a $10 million dedicated fund was proposed to help pro-resource development groups. They also pledged to work with the federal government to streamline Indigenous access to health and education.

The NDP and Alberta Party made similar pledges, albeit with more attention to reconciliation, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, in the case of the Alberta Party, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

A bigger problem is voter apathy. Apathy is an issue across Canada-during the last provincial election, a record 64% of eligible voters actually voted. A big reason for this apathy is that many voters do not think their vote matters. This view is particularly relevant in so-called safe ridings where parties can seemingly run anyone and still win the election. Voter apathy, however, is an even bigger problem among Indigenous Canadians. Add into this equation the history of the Indigenous franchise in Canada and Alberta and you have yet another reason why so few Indigenous people vote. True, technically the Métis and non-status Indians have been able to vote federally since Confederation and provincially since the creation of Alberta 1905. However, for a variety of reasons, such as poverty and/or isolation, this right was, at times, hard to exercise. It should be noted that other Canadians faced similar problems if they fell into either category.

For status Indians (aka treaty Indians), with a brief exception for soldiers during the 1917 federal election, the right to vote in federal elections was not extended until 1960, with the provincial franchise extended in 1965. Prior to these two dates, in order to gain the right to vote (with the exception of 1917), status Indians had to give up their status and become non-status Indians. With a few exceptions, this surrender rarely occurred, in large part because it often meant the individual could no longer live on reserve and would become alienated from their home community.

In short, for many people, voting became identified with not being Indigenous; this thought has only contributed to the feeling that one's vote does not matter. Until this changes, "none of the above" will no doubt continue to be the preferred candidate for Indigenous voters in Alberta.

Daniel Sims, History, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on May 7, 2019.