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The night Jaime Battiste won the Liberal nomination for the riding of Sydney-Victoria was the day Nova Scotia took one step closer to finally having an Indigenous MP.
The Eskasoni First Nation man, a Dalhousie law graduate and former Cape Breton University professor, acknowledged “the goal… is to make history in October” to a crowd of people the night he won.
That would leave Prince Edward Island as the only province who hasn’t had an Indigenous person elected as MP and would bring the national total of Indigenous people who’ve served at MPs to 40.
As more Indigenous people are getting involved in federal and provincial politics, it also seems engagement is increasing within their communities. According to Elections Canada’s website, voter turnout for registered electors living on reserves was 61.5 per cent in 2015 – a 14 per cent increase from 2011.
While these numbers are positive, there is still the issue of underrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canadian politics, and that’s part of what Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak calls the “problematic history” the Crown has had with Indigenous people.
Indigenous people couldn’t vote until 1960 without giving up their status rights. Treaty negotiations, which are still taking place across the country, are another “part of the equation” that Urbaniak said needs to be addressed to help heal the relationship and attract more Indigenous people to politics.
“Promoting more representation of Indigenous Canadians in federal political institutions is very much tied up with the process of reconciliation and ensuring that treaties are respected and the overall relationship is respectful, so there can be a mutual understanding.”
There is still mistrust of the government by many Indigenous people and Urbaniak said increasing the number of Indigenous people elected to provincial or federal government seats may or may not help.
“It relates to the question: is more representation enough given the rules and structures of the current system, or do some of the structures or policies need to change to ensure it is a meaningful relationship between Indigenous communities and the government?” he explained.
Adam Gould is a Membertou First Nation Man who works in public relations. Politically engaged from a young age, inspired by his family, Gould said he thinks having more Indigenous elected officials wouldn’t change much.
“Status quo,” he said. “Any Mi’kmaq rep, hypothetically is going to stay the course of the party (they are a part of).”
Although Gould has always been engaged in politics and has voted in every election since he could but said he didn’t find many people he knew in his community were doing the same.
W’ekoqma’q band councillor Steven Googoo said he finds more people in his community are engaged with First Nation politics than federal or provincial.
“I believe it has to do with accessibility,” he said. “People see their chief and councils on a weekly basis and know them personally. And for some, [disengagement comes from] not being educated enough on federal and provincial governments.”
Googoo started following politics more after being elected to council six years ago, when he was 27. Now he said he tries to stay informed and does believe more representation will get more Indigenous people involved.
“I strongly believe in having more Indigenous politicians with seats in the federal and provincial governments,” he said. “It will mean having more representation for Indigenous communities, will help gain trust, help educate First Nations on the two types of government and also add more diversity to the government.”
Overall, Googoo seems pleased with some steps both levels of the recent government have made toward healing their relationship with the troublesome history of First Nation and Crown relations.
“I believe, from an Indigenous point of view, both governments have been good to the Indigenous people,” he said.
“They have sat with our leadership, they have listened and have contributed the best way possible. It is the beginning of a relationship we haven’t had in a long time with any provincial or federal government.”