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Khelsilem, who went door knocking for the NDP’s Bowinn Ma on the Capilano Reserve where he grew up, is seen in Vancouver on Thursday. (Rafal Gerszak/the globe and mail)
Khelsilem, who went door knocking for the NDP’s Bowinn Ma on the Capilano Reserve where he grew up, is seen in Vancouver on Thursday. (Rafal Gerszak/the globe and mail)

B.C. election 2017

Squamish Nation voters help NDP rookie Bowinn Ma win B.C. riding Add to ...

Hours before NDP candidate Bowinn Ma took the North Vancouver-Lonsdale riding from a Liberal cabinet minister, she was out knocking on nearly every door encouraging people on the Squamish Nation Capilano reserve to vote.

She was accompanied by Khelsilem, a 27-year-old Squamish Nation member who abstained from voting in every Canadian election until now. From an Indigenous perspective, voting can be seen as a form of assimilation, he says.

But he said he voted for the first time in this week’s provincial election, and advocated to get people in his community out to polling stations.

“Last year, I was watching the results of the U.S. presidential election come in and it just struck me how fearful I was of what the next years would look like with Donald Trump as President,” he said.

So he decided to vote.

“I felt like I couldn’t sit on the sidelines any more, in the same way I saw people in the U.S. presidential election sat on the sidelines,” he said.

After a lacklustre turnout in the 2013 election – just 55 per cent – and a historical difficulty getting Indigenous residents to vote, the NDP and the Liberals made concerted efforts in this campaign to engage those citizens. Voter turnout over all was 60 per cent.

Khelsilem, who uses only one name, recruited Squamish Nation members to knock on doors, producing election-education material, co-ordinating rides to polling stations and even posting a video on Facebook endorsing Ms. Ma that got more than 10,000 views.

North Vancouver-Lonsdale is a swing riding with a large Indigenous population. Khelsilem does not live there any more, but said he saw the impact his friends and family could have.

“If our community came out to vote, we could end up being the deciding factor in this election,” he said. He stressed it was a collective effort to encourage people to vote NDP.

Most of the Capilano Reserve, where Khelsilem grew up, is in Voting Area 2 of North Vancouver-Lonsdale by Elections B.C.’s designations. In the 2013, only 148 out of 432 eligible voters in that area marked a ballot, a turnout rate of 34 per cent, much less than the rate of 57 per cent for the whole province.

Lower voter turnout in Indigenous communities is seen throughout the country in federal elections, too. Khelsilem thinks Indigenous people may choose to abstain from politics like he did because they believe it does not represent them or feel their voice would not be heard.

“I think that Indigenous people, for a long time, just felt that their votes didn’t matter. So they didn’t feel like participating because it wouldn’t have an impact,” he said.

Khelsilem will need to wait until poll-by-poll results are available in June to see if his advocacy work made a difference.

Looking at vote results for polling stations on or near reserves is an imperfect measure, because many Indigenous people live off-reserve. Elections B.C. does not track voters by ethnicity.

Khelsilem aligned himself with the New Democrats because he feels they value justice for Indigenous people and the land. “The NDP was opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and that was a big motivator for a lot of my community to come out and vote,” he said. “In terms of door-knocking, it was the easiest issue to talk about.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Ma had 1,450 votes more than the Liberal incumbent, according to Elections B.C. Khelsilem estimates there might be between 1,000 and 1,400 eligible voters in the Squamish Nation’s three North Shore reserves.

This is Ms. Ma’s first time running. She’s an engineer, and works at the Vancouver International Airport. She took the seat from Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness Naomi Yamamoto. The Liberals won the riding in 2013 and in 2009.

“Our First Nations have not been treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve from our governments in a long, long time,” she said.

The Liberals also made efforts to court the Indigenous vote. Michelle Casavant, president of the two-year-old B.C. Liberal Indigenous Network, travelled to many communities on the island and in northern B.C. doing outreach.

“It’s hard to get access to [politics]. It’s more just Victoria and Vancouver where political events are centred,” said Ms. Casavant, who is a member of the Métis Nation.

The Liberals ran three prominent Indigenous candidates in northern B.C. ridings, one of whom released a radio spot in English and Gitxsan. Only one was elected: Ellis Ross, former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation in Skeena.

“[The Haisla Nation] had a high suicide rate, they had no jobs,” Ms. Casavant said. “And then he came in as chief and changed that. Just by bringing industry to his community. They got employed, and the suicide rate this year is down to none. Zero suicides.”

Khelsilem acknowledged that his community in the Lower Mainland had a different priority: stopping the Kinder Morgan expansion.

He added that even though he encouraged people to vote this year, it is not a blanket endorsement of participation in what he calls colonial politics.

“My perspective on this is an attitude of harm reduction. Having a different government in Victoria will relieve a lot of the suffering for a lot of Indigenous people that I know,” he said.

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