Across the remote communities of northern Saskatchewan, which are piled into one sprawling electoral district and face an array of hardships, voters had a historic choice.
The four candidates in the riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River made up a slate that was unique nationally: Everyone was aboriginal.
Former Mountie and incumbent Conservative Rob Clarke won a narrow victory and was among seven elected members of Parliament with first nations, Inuit or Métis heritage, a figure researchers say is the most ever.
“We’re on our way like never before, and seven MPs is fantastic,” said Len Marchand, 77, a Liberal who in 1968 became the first Status Indian to be elected to Parliament, eight years after aboriginals got the vote. “The aboriginal MPs certainly now are role models.”
The significance, however, stretches beyond its symbolism and raises a question: Will the largest-ever contingent finally press Ottawa to address problems facing many of Canada’s aboriginals?
There are direct impacts of aboriginal candidates, such as the “dramatic” effect they have in drawing out aboriginal voters for whom turnout is typically significantly lower than the national average, said Kiera Ladner, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Politics and Governance at the University of Manitoba. In the Saskatchewan riding, turnout last Monday was 52.2 per cent, up from 44.7 in the previous election.
“It’s historic,” Mr. Clarke, who is Cree, said in an e-mail. “I think it gives a fresh perspective for a political party or to a national government as well.”
Underscoring the spike is another trend. Five of the seven MPs are Conservative, traditionally not a party flush with aboriginal support.
The Tories have wooed aboriginal voters and candidates alike with popular focuses on the economy and on crime, as well as an apology to survivors of residential schools.
But the party has alienated others with unpopular policies. Those include a clean-water bill that some fear would download liability but provide no funding for communities to provide clean water, and an accountability bill that some leaders say lays too much blame on chiefs.
Now, for an aboriginal caucus of unprecedented size, the real work begins. And there is much to do.
In Mr. Clarke’s northern Saskatchewan riding, for instance, two-thirds of the population is aboriginal. The average household income is about $37,500, 41 per cent below the national average; more than half the adult population doesn’t have a high-school diploma; and the population is disproportionately young (minors make up 36 per cent of it, compared with 28 per cent nationally).
Mr. Clarke’s caucus colleague Rod Bruinooge, a Métis Winnipegger who won re-election, says the minority Parliament was unable to tackle weighty issues.
“That’s just the sheer reality of minority politics – people may not do these other activities that are worthwhile,” Mr. Bruinooge said. “Perhaps we’ve found peace in our time and maybe it will make a difference in getting in touch with more aboriginal youth.”
They need to do more than that, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said. He called the rival NDP’s aboriginal policies “pretty progressive,” and urged MPs to come to the aid of 75,000 aboriginal Canadians with unsafe drinking water, commit to a gathering of first nations and Crown leaders, and back a summit on aboriginal energy and mining development.
“I am hopeful with a majority situation now that we’ve got that kind of political will,” Mr. Atleo said. “Perhaps now we can get on with the plans to overcome and get beyond the problems.”
The aboriginal contingent also includes Conservatives Leona Aglukkaq, Shelly Glover and Peter Penashue, as well as New Democrats Jonathan Genest-Jourdain and Romeo Saganash (who won after his Bloc Québécois opponent suggested that voters weren’t likely to back an aboriginal candidate).
The Conservative success is likely due in part to more aboriginal communities focusing on the economy as a way of improving social conditions, said Clarence Louie, chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia. The band is among the most business-minded in Canada, with millions of dollars in business partnerships, including Canada’s first aboriginal-owned winery.
Mr. Louie used to vote Liberal; last week, he voted Conservative. “I vote for whoever is doing good with the economy,” he said.
It’s that type of thinking that has drawn aboriginal candidates to the Conservative Party that now bears the high hopes of a population long neglected by Ottawa.
It’s better than the “old days of me being the only little Indian in the House of Commons,” said Mr. Marchand, laughing. “There are some [improvements] that will come along. It’ll happen. But we are so much better off than 43 years ago, when I first got in.”