Canada’s new wave of Indigenous politicians are already making their mark
Adorned with statues symbolic of Canada’s colonial history, the Manitoba Legislature building stands on the banks of the Assiniboine River.
Wab Kinew was six years old the first time he came to the Legislative building in 1988 to protest the shooting of JJ Harper with his family. They were joining a group of Indigenous protestors crying out for an investigation into the slaying of Harper, an Indigenous man who was shot and killed after an altercation with two police officers.
“My father wasn’t allowed to vote when he was a young man, and now I’m elected official.”
The killing of Harper, in combination with the murder of Cree High School student Helen Betty Osborne, sparked one of the largest mobilizations of Indigenous peoples seen that decade. That, spurred the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which sought to look into the toxic relationship between Indigenous people in Manitoba and the justice system.
On April 10, standing in the same courtyard of the Legislative Building, Kinew announced his candidacy for provincial leader of the NDP.
“It was more of a gut feeling,” Kinew told VICE news about his decision to step into mainstream politics, “I figured I’m passionate about this stuff so i might as well give it a shot.”
“My father wasn’t allowed to vote when he was a young man, and now I’m elected official… I think that tells you that progress has been made.”
Kinew is the odds-on favourite to become the next leader of the Manitoba party — he is, for the moment, the only candidate. The musician and former CBC broadcaster represents a noticeable shift towards more Indigenous representation within Canadian politics.
First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples have only been able to vote since 1960. And, yet, in the 2015 federal election, a record number 54 Indigenous candidates ran across all four major parties, with 10 of those candidates getting elected. Across Canada, Indigenous people accounted for just over four per cent of the overall population, and they represent three percent of the House of Commons.
Those who have won seats are already making their mark. Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who was elected in Winnipeg Centre, and of Cree and Métis heritage. Elected as a Liberal, he’s already proved willing to challenge his own party — a rarity in Ottawa.
At the beginning of May, Ouellette delivered a speech to the House of Commons in Cree condemning the attacks on Indigenous women that had occurred in Manitoba. Because of the lack of translators in parliament who are able to speak Indigenous languages, he was forced to repeat the speech in English.
“Finding out what is really required before making any type of promises should always be done first.”
“Unfortunately the translators couldn’t or wouldn’t, according to the rules of Parliament, translate one of our Indigenous languages, which I still believe should be an official language of this country, our Indigenous languages,” Ouellette told reporters after question period.
Falcon-Ouellette’s Indigenous colleagues in Parliament also include Canada’s first-ever Indigenous Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Romeo Saganash, a survivor of the residential school system.
“If we want our perspectives to be included in those decisions then we need people who have lived our life experiences sitting at the table making those decisions,” Kinew told VICE News in an interview.
In order to maintain their unique cultural histories, Indigenous peoples have had to push back against attempted acts of cultural genocide from residential schools, with the trauma inflicted from these attempts reverberating across generations.
Years of agitation and grassroots movement have pierced the mainstream in Canada, and have delivered results: A push to set up an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women gained increasing momentum in recent years, a lack of clean drinking water has become a high-profile political issue, the unequal funding available for child welfare and social services on reserve has come to national attention, and the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples is of increasing worry across the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has staked his political legacy on his commitments to Indigenous peoples, running on a pledge to adopt a spate of ambitious calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help right the wrongs perpetrated by the residential school system.
But, there is debate around whether Indigenous involvement in mainstream politics is the right road to take towards change for Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.
“A lot of young Indigenous people just don’t want to go into politics because they figure that the white man is going to control us.”
“[Trudeau] may have had good intentions,” Chief Laurie Carr of Hiawatha First Nation told VICE News, “but there are so many issues due to lack of resources for many years that he will not be able to meet the genuine needs of First Nations.
“Finding out what is really required before making any type of promises should always be done first,” says Carr.
Grand Chief Gord Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians told VICE News he believes that the current government is “lost and overwhelmed,” adding he’s inherently skeptical of the Canadian Parliament. “I don’t ever look at Indigenous people in government as a good thing, or that they’re representing me — because they don’t.”
Peters says Ottawa ought to be figuring out ways to work directly with the provinces and First Nations, instead of trying to “do it alone.”
Robert Bertrand, the National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal People, is optimistic that progress can be made.
“A lot of young Indigenous people just don’t want to go into politics because they figure that the white man is going to control us and this and that but we have to change their minds,” he told VICE news.
“My path is on the mainstream side right now and that’s important to me but I know we need to get people on the other side as well.”
But, he says, given that Indigenous peoples are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada, things are ripe for change.
“By getting more young people in there, they are becoming the decision makers.”
Kinew says all governments have fallen short when it comes to respecting Indigenous people, and it’s not endemic to any one party.
“We definitely need activism, we need Idle No More, the water protectors, and NODAPL,” Kinew says. Ultimately, he adds: “Activists are going to exert pressure from the outside but decisions are going to be made at a table inside.”
The Manitoba NDP are slated to choose a new leader this September, and it looks like Kinew is slated to take the top job. That means Kinew will vie to become the first Indigenous premier elected in Manitoba’s history.
“My path is on the mainstream side right now and that’s important to me but I know we need to get people on the other side as well. It’s not one or the other, we need good people in both.”
Cover: John Woods/The Canadian Press