Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why the ballot box is a viable route for change for First Nations

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.

You can read the rest of the article at The Globe and Mail website.

The article spells out why the ballot box is a viable means for Canada's aboriginal peoples to effect change in this country. They do have the size to change outcomes, and if the Idle No More movement turned its attention to electoral politics it could have a huge influence.

If the movement had been active in May 2011 and targeted its efforts to get the vote out, they could have defeated nine Conservative MPs by convincing less than one-in-four aboriginal non-voters to cast their ballot for an NDP or Liberal candidate. More broadly, as mentioned in the article, targeted efforts could have reduced the Conservatives to a minority. More hypothetically, the aboriginal population is large enough to potentially sustain an aboriginal party that could hold the balance of power in a minority parliament. By looking at the results of the last election, it is possible to see what could be possible for the movement going forward.

This was an interesting article to research. Thanks to Elections Canada, who provided me with a list of polling divisions partly or completely located on a First Nations reserve, it was possible to make an estimate of how on-reserve aboriginals voted in the last federal election. The results were not exactly surprising, but the extent to which the New Democrats dominated between Saskatchewan and Quebec was remarkable.

In fact, the national totals mentioned in this article (43% for the NDP, 37% for the Conservatives) actually disguise the size of the NDP lead in many native communities. The Conservatives' on-reserve vote was located primarily in British Columbia, where the on-reserve (or at least those who voted) population is quite high. B.C. voters represented almost half of the entire pool.

Going through the returns, I noticed that the Conservatives were competitive on or near many reserves, but when a reserve voted for the NDP they voted en masse. It was not unusually to see the New Democrats taking 80% or more of the vote in a reserve polling division. As I mention in the article, the NDP took over 90% of the vote in Attawapiskat. That pattern was repeated in many native communities, whereas it was very rare to see this level of support for the Tories in any polling division.

But the analysis I made here is somewhat hamstrung. Elections Canada included any polling division that partly contained a First Nations reserve, making no distinction between polling divisions in which the on-reserve population represented 95% of voters and those in which only a tiny portion of voters were on a reserve. They did distinguish those polling divisions located entirely on reserves, however. But without a very detailed study of each polling division (and there are 1,300+ reserves), it is impossible to know how much the sample was skewed due to it including non-First Nations voters. It was likely not skewed to a huge extent, as many reserves are located some distance from non-aboriginal populations, but I suspect that a not insignificant portion of the Conservative vote tally actually came from non-aboriginals.

The results in Quebec particularly stood out, as the Bloc Québécois managed 19% support. This is a case where much of that Bloc support probably existed in polling divisions that were partly on a reserve and partly not on a reserve, as in some locations the Bloc's vote was virtually non-existant. But discounting the Bloc's vote on reserves in Quebec entirely would be jumping to a false conclusion: there were actually a few polling divisions that were located entirely on reserves in which the Bloc took a normal chunk of the vote. This makes it difficult to assess how much of that 19% is real First Nations support and how much of it was drawn from non-aboriginal Quebecers who merely live near a reserve. Here again, the Bloc's support is likely (but not completely) inflated, pushing the NDP's proportion up even more.

Nevertheless, this analysis captures virtually every First Nations voter who lives on a reserve (but as Elections Canada points out, it is possible that some on-reserve natives were directed to polling booths off of their reserve). Might we expect aboriginals who do not live on a reserve to vote differently? That is something we do not know, but we have some indication that they may vote similarly. As mentioned in the article, an Elections Canada study found similar turnout levels between on- and off-reserve aboriginals.

There are also eight ridings with large aboriginal populations (10,000+) but few reserves: Winnipeg North, Winnipeg Centre, Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, Western Arctic, Vancouver Island North, Prince Albert, Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, and Nunavut. On average, the NDP took 41% of the vote in these eight ridings, with the Tories taking just under 40%. Not dissimilar from the national on-reserve totals. And the NDP managed 43% or more in five of the eight ridings (and averaged 44% if we exclude Nunavut). So it stands to reason that the on-reserve estimate is probably not unrepresentative of off-reserve voting habits as well.

It will be interesting to see what political consequences the recent protests will have. Will aboriginal leaders consider the ballot box as a means for change? Will the federal parties start prioritizing First Nations issues in order to get their support? I suspect that we will be discussing these issues for quite some time to come.