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Earl Sunshine of Grand Prairie takes part in an Idle No More protest outside Vancouver City Hall in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, January, 11, 2013.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

With protests, hunger strikes, and the obstruction of transportation links, Canada's first nations have forced themselves to the top of the political agenda for 2013. While their underlying concerns have deeper roots, the recent target of their ire has been the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But Canada's aboriginal peoples have an easier path to force change: voting.

Low aboriginal turnout

According to a study by Elections Canada published in August 2012, turnout on first nations reserves was just under 45 per cent in the 2011 federal election, compared to 61 per cent among the general population. The limitations of the study related to voter registration, but also the unavoidable inclusion of non-reserve votes into the calculations, mean that turnout on first nations reserves was likely even lower than 45 per cent. (Read the infographic)

That should be of great concern to aboriginal leaders, as a higher turnout in the last election could have prevented some of the recent changes the Conservative majority government has made to legislation relating to their way of life.

NDP dominate native vote

Based on Elections Canada's study of turnout, it is possible to estimate how people on first nations reserves voted in the last election. Using the polling divisions identified in the study as being completely or partially located on a first nations reserve, an analysis reveals that the Conservatives benefit from low first nations turnout.

At 43 per cent support, the New Democrats won the lion's share of the vote in these polling divisions, taking 12 percentage points more than they did among the general population. The Conservatives took 37 per cent of the vote, three points less than their national total. The Liberals took 12 per cent, the Greens 6 per cent, and the Bloc Québécois 1 per cent of the vote. That represents a drop of seven and five points, respectively, for the Liberals and Bloc and a gain of two points for the Greens, when compared to their share of the vote among the general population.

The New Democrats' edge is particularly marked east of Alberta. The NDP took more than 50 per cent of the first nations vote on reserves in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario (including more than 90 per cent in Attawapiskat), and Quebec. With the exception of Quebec, that is 20 points or more than their vote share among the general population. The Conservatives took only 25 per cent of the aboriginal vote in Ontario and 20 per cent in Manitoba – a province in which they took 54 per cent of all ballots cast.

The Tories took a majority of the vote in Alberta, but the NDP was nevertheless at 30 per cent in the province. The Conservatives also took the plurality of the First Nations vote in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, but again the New Democrats placed second with 30 per cent or more of the vote.

Off-reserve voting

This analysis, however, was limited only to those polling divisions partially or entirely located on a reserve. It does not take into account aboriginals who do not live on reserves.

But these aboriginals likely have similar voting patterns. Another study by Elections Canada showed that self-reported turnout was almost identical between on- and off-reserve aboriginals.

The most recent available data from Statistics Canada shows that about 60 per cent of aboriginals (which includes Inuit and Métis) are of voting age, compared to about 76 per cent of non-aboriginals. This makes it possible to roughly estimate the number of aboriginals located in each riding who would have been eligible to vote in the 2011 election.

With the data from the Elections Canada turnout study, it is also possible to estimate the number of aboriginals (both on- and off-reserve) who voted in each riding in the country – more importantly, it makes it possible to estimate the number of aboriginals who did not vote.

A hypothetical minority

If aboriginal turnout had been higher, and if those non-voting aboriginals had thrown their support behind the main Liberal or NDP candidate in their riding, as many as 14 ridings that elected Conservatives could have instead elected a member of the opposition. That means that the Conservatives could have been reduced to 152 seats in the House of Commons, giving them a minority and possibly preventing them from passing the two omnibus bills that are at the centre of the Idle No More movement's grievances.

In total, less than 8,000 aboriginal votes might have made the difference between a majority and minority government.

In nine particular ridings, if the turnout increased to 49 per cent from 40 per cent (and all targeted to one opposition candidate), the Conservative candidate would have been defeated.

An aboriginal party

By getting behind one of the opposition parties, aboriginal Canadians could force a national party to give their concerns priority. But what if they wanted to have their interests defended in the House of Commons directly?

Though it has been attempted without success before, a party dedicated to aboriginal issues would have the potential to be a major force in Canadian politics. There are at least 10 ridings (five Conservative, four NDP and one Liberal) in which the aboriginal population is large enough to elect their own candidates, if their turnout was high enough. A first nations party holding between five and 10 seats in the House of Commons could be hugely influential, particularly in a minority parliament where their support could be required to pass legislation.

Canada's aboriginal peoples have already demonstrated that they have the ability to push their issues to the national stage and to ensure their voices are heard by the federal government. We may yet see real consequences and change as a result of the Idle No More protests. But Canada's first nations have it within themselves to pursue change in a more conventional, democratic, and, perhaps, more effective way. They need to vote in larger numbers.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at