This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
With Quebec elections only a day away, federalists and separatists are squabbling over election-stealing students and the dangers of headscarves. In the meantime, many spectators have been left wondering why more serious issues aren’t being discussed. For the province’s 150,000 First Nations & Inuit people, that question is more present than ever.
At times, Quebec’s relationship with First Nations people has been outright disastrous. 1990’s Oka crisis—a land dispute that prompted gun battles between Quebec police and Mohawk warriors—stands out as a particularly low point. Things have improved since then, but many native leaders are looking at the current election campaign and wondering why their people haven’t been included in the conversation.
“Really, in the politics of Quebec, First Nations issues don’t get you elected. Some non-native voters would probably look at aboriginal issues in a negative light, so leaders just push it to the side during their campaign,” says Chief Lloyd Phillips of Kahnawake, a Mohawk reserve just south of Montreal.
Three weeks into the provincial election campaign, Phillips says none of the parties in the running have reached out to the Mohawk leadership. The Parti Quebecois only vaguely mentions aboriginal people in their platform, and the Liberals don’t at all. Even Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, the main representative body of aboriginal peoples in the province, had yet to be contacted by any of the parties currently sitting in Quebec’s National Assembly as of Friday.
Aboriginal leaders started piping up about this problem weeks ago when rich-dude-turned-Parti Québécois candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau started fist-pumping for an independent Quebec. As it does for any non-pure laine minority, the PQ’s fanning of separatist flames has many Natives wondering what their place in a Francophone country would be. Across Quebec’s aboriginal territory, the sovereignty movement gets about the same amount of love as it would on an Alberta oilrig.
“If anyone is going to declare sovereignty, it should be first and foremost the First Nations of this province,” said Chief Phillips, one of several First Nations leaders to voice his opposition towards separatism last week. “To us, it’s almost ludicrous that anyone would even suggest the idea without bringing First Nations into that conversation."
Although the sovereignty issue has the potential to draw Native people to the polls, Quebec’s reserves are still some of the only places in the province currently spared from Marois’s grinning mug and the Liberal Party’s poorly-translated campaign slogans. Politicians aren’t lining up to kiss babies on reserves, and the low voter turnout rates in those territories prove it. Many communities rarely see over 20 percent turnouts, and some see none at all. For many aboriginal communities in the province, voting in federal or provincial elections is a faux-pas that goes back to Canada’s outstandingly poor history of native relations.
“It’s very common for many Quebec aboriginals to decide against voting. It’s often considered to be a recognition of the sovereignty of another government over our own, something that takes away from our right to self-determination,” says Melissa Mollen Dupuis, an Innu woman, who is also one of two main organizers behind the Quebec branch of aboriginal activist group Idle No More.
Melissa is an off-reserve aboriginal, and votes every election. Although she admits that the PQ’s agenda had more people talking about the vote, the lack of aboriginal issues being addressed on the campaign has left many people feeling alienated. This is especially true in remote northern communities, where important issues like housing and poor access to health and social services aren’t being talked about. “If Quebec is one big hamburger, why are we the side of fries?” asks Dupuis.
Chief Phillips says he has never voted in a provincial or federal election, and that the Mohawk council does not endorse voting. Despite allegations of voting intimidation in Kahnawake, he says anyone who wishes to vote is free to, and a tiny percentage of the community does.
But the aboriginal vote is never completely absent, and the last push for Quebec sovereignty proved that. During the 1995 referendum, the Cree of James Bay and the province’s Inuit people decided the best way to assert their own right to self-determination was to hold their own referendums. Both drew 75 percent of their eligible voters to the polls, with 96 percent of respondents refusing to be part of an independent Quebec.
Today, billions of dollars flow into the Quebec economy from resource development in the north. Hydro Quebec, the world’s largest hydroelectric producer and the crown jewel of Quebec’s resource economy, operates on territory that is shared with Cree and Inuit people. With both the Liberals and the PQ pushing for increased northern development, the voting climate stands to change in Quebec’s northernmost riding of Ungava.
“Aboriginal people will play an increasing role in the way that resource development takes place on the traditional territories of aboriginal people,” Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come told The Nation. “This reality will translate eventually into an increasing interest on everyone’s part in involving our communities in electoral politics.”
Coon Come openly encourages his people to vote, and with good reason. In the last provincial election, their riding (Ungava) was decided by 1,153 votes. With only a 13.5 percent turnout amongst Crees, 7,705 eligible votes were not cast. As one of the province’s fastest growing demographics, today’s northern aboriginals have the potential to claim a greater say in Quebec’s politics.
“Too often, electoral boundaries have been configured in such a way as to ensure the minority status of our people across the country,” Coon Come says. “In spite of that, there are areas where the population of Aboriginal people is still increasing and where they cannot be ignored anymore.”
It’s easy to admit that politics in Quebec can get ugly. But in an election campaign that has focused on the province’s so-called values, the values of its original inhabitants have not been acknowledged. The decision to participate in any election is a personal choice. Whether or not Quebec’s aboriginal communities choose to vote, this year’s campaign leaves little doubt that their allies in the National Assembly are still few and far between.
Photo via Flickr user abdallahh