WIKWEMIKONG—As the arena hall began to fill last Tuesday night for Wikwemikong’s first Ignite our Vote event, Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing NDP incumbent Carol Hughes and Liberal candidate Heather Wilson chatted amicably about upcoming all candidates’ nights on the election circuit, waiting for their turn at the microphone and a chance to share their parties’ platforms before the large, and eager to learn, crowd.

It was thanks to Wikwemikong youth Gerrilynn Manitowabi that her first Ignite our Vote event was such a success. The event, emceed by her father and former chief, Wally Manitowabi, was designed to encourage First Nations people, particularly youth, to get out and vote in the upcoming federal election on October 19 and “have a say and effect change in the government to come.”

Mr. Manitowabi began the evening’s events with a presentation on how the federal government works, explaining that Canada’s government is based on the British parliamentary system. He then gave an overview on how elections work, the number of seats in the House of Commons and how majority or minority governments are formed.

“It’s your vote for who will do the best job in the riding, but also for what their party stands for,” Mr. Manitowabi explained, “especially as it relates to First Nations people—not just relating to the last term of office, but historically.”

Ms. Manitowabi also explained the new Fair Elections Act and how it pertains to First Nations people who sometimes don’t have photo ID and would rely on the vouching system, which has since been abolished under the new act. She gave great detail as to how one can get on the voters’ list and what pieces of ID one needs to vote and how one can go about getting ID, such as the Ontario photo ID card for those who do not have a driver’s licence.

Can First Nations votes make a difference? the father and daughter duo posed the question. It certainly can.

According to the Assembly of First Nations there are 51 swing ridings in the country that could go any way based on the First Nations vote, among them Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing (AMK). There are also 25 aboriginal candidates Canada-wide. “First Nations participation will make a difference,” Ms. Manitowabi said.

By way of example of the power of the First Nations vote, Mr. Manitowabi explained that while former Liberal MP Brent St. Denis was in Ottawa, he had a contingent of chiefs ask him to vote against the First Nations Governance Act, which was seen as a further stranglehold on First Nations self-governance.

“First Nations leaders fought that legislation as hard as they could,” Mr. Manitowabi explained. Mr. St. Denis was challenged to vote against the act with a warning that if he didn’t there would be consequences with the loss of First Nation support. He stood by his party and, in the 2008 election, lost to the NDP’s Carol Hughes.

In the 2011 election only 44.8 percent of First Nations people voted as opposed to 61 percent of the electorate, yet this is the fastest growing segment of the population, Ms. Manitowabi noted. But in AMK, 49.8 percent of First Nations (17.7 percent of the AMK electorate) voted. In the last election one-third of First Nations people were under the age of 16, meaning that a large number of these individuals are now eligible to vote, the young woman enthused.

“I was 19 in the last election and I didn’t vote because I thought it didn’t matter,” Ms. Manitowabi admitted.

The young woman has since learned that it does matter and shared her own personal reasons for voting on October 19. The first reason is the missing and murdered aboriginal women, and she shared statistics with the crowd on the staggering numbers. Second was water safety, she said, noting “how lucky we are to live in a community that has its own water treatment plant.” Her third reason is poverty and the many communities that live in third-world conditions. She cited the statistic that one in four aboriginal children live in poverty while 20 percent of First Nations adults are hungry because they can’t afford to buy food. Education is also high on her list of reasons to vote, noting to the audience that First Nations children receive between $2,000 and $3,000 less per child from the government than non-First Nations children.

“There are so many reasons we need to get Steven Harper out of government,” Ms. Manitowabi said, adding that he’s ignored all the things she’s just mentioned and cares deeply about.

“It’s beyond any of us as to why he would refuse to call a simple enquiry,” Mr. Manitowabi added, referencing the call for a national enquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. He went on to speak of the post-graduate graduating ceremony held the week before the community’s annual powwow and the great successes that could be found there. “Imagine how many more successes there would be if the disparity wasn’t there.”

The floor was then turned over to Carol Hughes, NDP, and Heather Wilson, Liberal. The Conservative Party’s André Robichaud was also asked to attend the Ignite our Vote event but declined due to prior engagements.

Ms. Hughes was up first and began by acknowledging the Anishinabek land that they were gathered upon and thanking the community for inviting the candidates to participate and saying what an honour it has been to serve as MP.

“The unique relationship between your nations and Canada is one that demands a different level of attention by any MP whose constituency includes First Nations, and those communities are a defining feature of AMK,” Ms. Hughes said. “The primary reason for this is that the relationship is, and must be viewed as, a nation-to-nation relationship.”

She said it is “time for the tide to turn” on issues such as poverty, education, basic infrastructure and “a justice system that really isn’t working all that well for aboriginal communities,” as the NDP has watched as these challenges are put off for another day “time and again.”

Ms. Hughes also listed statistics for First Nations poverty, education, drinking water and missing and murdered aboriginal women.

“We have gone through 10 years of Conservative rule which started with some real hope in the form of an official apology to residential school survivors, but it has become abundantly clear that was the high-water mark for the Conservatives,” the incumbent continued.

“First Nations should be expected to get the same results with less and less every year,” Ms. Hughes said. “Because less and less every year is exactly what the outcome of the two percent funding cap ensures. It has been in place for almost 20 years and the results are predictable and sobering.”

But far from the problems facing many communities, there is also hope, joy, resiliency, determination and, of course, humour, she continued. “I think those qualities are important and must be preserved as the heavy lifting is done to build the brighter future that sees improvements across the board.”

If elected, Ms. Hughes said the NDP would call a national enquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women within 100 days. They would also implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; consult and act on the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; invest in “essential physical infrastructure work that is also a great stimulator of economic activity;” address the education deficit; and “reject the prescriptive nature that has come to define the relationship between First Nations and Canada.”

“New Democrats are committed to working on a nation-to-nation basis to build a respectful and productive relationship that will show to all Canadians that your interests are our interests and that together we can be strongest.”

Heather Wilson of the Liberal Party spoke next, giving the audience background on her personal and work life, from farm girl to financial controller with an eye for social justice. “My parents showed me that a passion for what you do and love of family and community is what is important in life,” she said.

Following the death of her mother, and just before the birth of her third son, Ms. Wilson realized that “if you’re not doing what feeds your soul you better get doing it.” She then went back to school to obtain a degree in English and Women’s Studies and then earn a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Gender Equality and Social Justice. “My unique experience in financial administration, human resource management, public relations and social justice is something that I think will serve me well in my entry into federal politics.”

“The Liberal Party of Canada, led by Justin Trudeau, believes that Canada only succeeds when we all succeed,” Ms. Wilson continued. “This election is about our future, and Canadians know that better is possible.  Only Liberals are offering a plan that will deliver growth that works for everyone.  Our plan will make a real, positive difference for all Canadians.”

The Liberal candidate noted how the week before the event, Justin Trudeau announced in Saskatoon how his government would build a renewed partnership with First Nations that ensures high quality education and economic opportunity for all First Nations. “As the fastest growing demographic in Canada, it is critical to our shared future that First Nations have the same education and economic opportunities as everyone else,” she said. “It must be a real priority for the federal government. We will immediately re-engage in a renewed, respectful and inclusive nation-to-nation process with indigenous peoples to advance progress on the issues prioritized by First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. Only the Liberal party has come forward with a concrete plan to address the educational, health and infrastructure inequities that aboriginal people currently experience.”

Ms. Wilson said her party would also work to return to the principles of the Kelowna Accord that sought to “close the gap” between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal standard of living in Canada.

Last week Mr. Trudeau also announced a plan for $515 million per year of new investment in core annual funding for First Nations Kindergarten to Grade 12 education, rising to over $750 million per year by the end of their first mandate. “In addition, we would implement an immediate new investment of $500 million over the next three years for First Nations education infrastructure,” Ms. Wilson continued. “Plus $50 million to support post-secondary support programs; substantial new funding to promote, preserve and enhance indigenous language and culture; and work collaboratively to include aboriginal and treaty rights, residential schools and the contributions of indigenous people to Canada in classroom learning.”

She added that a Liberal government would also focus on developing a reconciliation framework, holding mandatory annual meetings between the prime minister and First Nations chiefs, while working to implement all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by establishing a National Council of Reconciliation.

“A Liberal government will immediately launch a fully inclusive public inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls,” Ms. Wilson said. “The mandate of such an inquiry will be to recommend concrete actions that governments, law enforcement and communities can take to understanding and solving these crimes. The current government has ignored uncomfortable truths and has done nothing to address the root causes of this national tragedy.”

She also spoke of the Liberals’ plan to combat climate change and their commitment to protecting our water and environment by increasing the protected marine and coastal areas and reinstating the funding for freshwater research including Northern Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area. Ms. Wilson added that her party would also ensure that the Crown is committed to its constitutional duty to consult and respect aboriginal people on project reviews and assessments, changes to the Fisheries Act and the elimination of the Navigable Waters Act.

“I am an avid runner, and with a loyal running group we run up to 40 kilometres a week, 12 months of the year,” she explained. “I have run the Wiki 10K Road Runner Race for about eight consecutive years now. I am not the fastest runner but I stick with it and complete every race that I enter. Running is a good lesson in politics. It takes commitment, dedication, patience, support and a will to complete the race. I have made this riding my home, and I want you to be proud that your representative in Ottawa has your best interests in mind when it comes to getting the job done.”

Following the candidates’ speeches Ms. Manitowabi posed questions from the floor that had been written down and placed in a box. Questions included: how the candidates will support Anishinaabe-kwe in keeping our water safe (referencing the water walkers); a commitment to a national enquiry; National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program funding disparity; whether their parties’ leaders stood for the freedom of candidates to suggest their own ideas; addressing the high unemployment rate; new schools; funding for First Nations libraries; “how will there be evidence-based decision making over dictatorship in your government”; and “what will you do to make sure public servants aren’t muzzled?”

Ms. Manitowabi thanked the community for attending the event, encouraging people to spread the word by visiting her Facebook page called Ignite our Vote.

Chief Duke Peltier gave the closing remarks, thanking the candidates for making themselves available and wishing them “the best of luck” on October 19.

“We’ve heard platforms that will give us some food for thought,” the chief said, “now you do have the opportunity to vote.”

He encouraged any government to increase the funding for infrastructure. “This is essentially the way forward.” The chief noted the age of his community’s schools, which aren’t deemed a priority to replace, the cuts in funding for new houses and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings, language and their relationship with the Crown.

“We need you, as our representatives, to make things right,” the chief concluded.

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