Chiefs across Canada are being urged to get their people into federal voting booths next fall with the aim of defeating the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The call on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), adds another dynamic to an already tight three-way race and offers incentive to opposition leaders to target at least part of their campaigns at aboriginal people – a demographic that has largely been considered inconsequential to the outcome of elections.
"This is a matter of national importance, and there should be no greater effort put forward by us in the coming weeks and into the coming months," Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told the crowd of several hundred.
Every indigenous leader has a responsibility to return to their community and ensure their youth are registered to cast a ballot on Oct. 19, Mr. Nepinak said. He urged the chiefs to persuade their communities to vote for the candidate – Liberal or New Democrat – with the best chance of defeating a Conservative.
"We all have the ability to cast a ballot to effect change in Ottawa," he said. "We can mitigate the damages by voting for a different government in this upcoming election."
First Nations leaders say they have the numbers to affect the outcome in 51 ridings. Traditionally, turnout among aboriginal people lags well behind that of the general population. Elections Canada says 45 per cent of people on reserves voted in 2011, but the chiefs say the actual turnout was much lower.
Many First Nations people also believe casting a ballot in a national election undermines their sovereignty and tarnishes the ideal of a nation-to-nation relationship between their community and the government of Canada. That has undoubtedly contributed to low participation rates.
But First Nations leaders say several factors could propel their communities to the polls this year.
The first is a mistrust of the Conservative government that has been simmering for years and has intensified since the last election. Chiefs complain about matters such as a lack of money for on-reserve education, a frustrating process for settling land claims, the government's refusal to call an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women and Mr. Harper's reluctance to meet face-to-face.
Groups have been created, including one called Rally The First Nation Vote, with the intent of ousting the Conservatives.
"We can work towards getting the Harper government out, and having a new government that is willing to work with First Nations people on indigenous issues," Quinn Meawasige, a member of the AFN youth council, told the gathering.
The second factor is what some chiefs describe as a growing empowerment of young indigenous people who are angered by the disparities between their standard of living and that of the rest of Canada, and whose numbers are increasing faster than the rate of the general population.
And the third is the rapid expansion of social media.
"Look what happened with Idle No More," Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, told The Globe and Mail. "Because of social media, people are starting to talk. Look at the excitement of the youth. They are the ones that are really going to drive this."
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says the Conservative government has introduced measures to improve the lives of aboriginal people, many of them aimed at positioning the First Nations to take full advantage of Canada's economic prosperity. The Liberals and the New Democrats, he said, "favour irresponsible spending instead of concrete, achievable and necessary action."
But native speakers at the three-day AFN meeting decried Conservative policies, from changes to the Canada Elections Act they say will make it more difficult for aboriginal people to vote, to reductions in environmental assessments, to anti-terrorism legislation that they say could affect their ability to engage in legitimate protest.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who addressed the assembly, promised a new era of respect for indigenous people. Both committed to increased consultation, improved language rights, a national inquiry into the missing and murdered women, more money for education and to attend future meetings of the AFN.
Change is not only possible, it is absolutely necessary, said Mr. Mulcair.
"We will never impose solutions from the top down," said Mr. Trudeau.
Unlike other chiefs, Mr. Bellegarde does not openly lobby for the defeat of the Conservatives saying the AFN must remain staunchly non-partisan. But he does urge greater First Nations electoral participation.
"The important thing is we want to make a difference," he said. "And, if anybody wants to get elected into government now, we are saying our vote is going to count this time around. Pay attention to us."