Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was recently quoted as saying, “If you want to become an MP, you better listen to us. You better focus on our issues because we’re voting now.” Indeed, the Indigenous voter turnout in the 2015 election was 61.5 percent compared with overall voter turnout of 68.3 percent.
As parties start their preparations for the 2019 election, how important is the Indigenous vote overall? Let’s take a look at ridings that have a significant Indigenous population.
According to statistics from the 2016 Census more communities are showing an increase in their Indigenous populations, with a consequent impact at the riding level. As figure 1 shows, 4 ridings are Indigenous majority ridings (as in 2011) and 12 have a population composed of between 20 and 50 percent Indigenous people (two more than in 2011). The largest increase is in ridings with 5 to 20 percent Indigenous population: 83 ridings in 2016 compared with 68 in 2011. An additional 21 ridings have between 10 and 20 percent Indigenous people compared with 15 in 2011.
Note that these numbers cannot be directly correlated with electoral impact, given that the Indigenous population is much younger than the non-Indigenous population. The proportion of eligible Indigenous voters is 2.8 percent compared with their overall share in the population of 4.9 percent.
Figure 2 provides the federal and provincial breakdown. Not surprisingly, apart from the North, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have the largest proportions of ridings with large numbers of Indigenous people, followed by Alberta and British Columbia. Ontario and Quebec have relatively fewer ridings with significant numbers of Indigenous voters. Atlantic Canada lies in the middle.
Table 1 provides the data behind figure 2.
The 2015 election saw the three major parties increasing their number of Indigenous candidates: 44 candidates or 3.9 percent, compared with 23 in the 2011 election, less than the 4.9 percent share of the population but more than the share of Indigenous voters. The election resulted in 10 Indigenous MPs (2.9 percent of the Commons), a new record for Canada, but nonetheless a significant under-representation vis-à-vis their national population.
Table 2 looks at the 16 (mainly rural) ridings where Indigenous voters form 20 percent or more of the electorate, along with the breakdown between First Nations, Métis and Inuit/Inuk. First Nations form the most significant group save for in Nunavut (Inuit), Labrador (the riding with large numbers of all three groups) and Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman (Métis are the largest group). Five of these 16 ridings are represented by Indigenous MPs.
Six are held by Conservatives, five by Liberals, four by the NDP, and one is an independent (former Liberal Hunter Tootoo).
In the 2015 election the Assembly of First Nations produced a list of 51 priority ridings where they wished to increase participation, advance their issues and influence the electoral results. As one would expect, all ridings with 20 percent or more Indigenous voters were included.
Table 3 lists the 32 ridings prioritized by the AFN that have Indigenous populations of 10 to 20 percent. Fourteen were held by the Conservatives, 13 by the Liberals and 5 by the NDP.
In 2015, 12 of these ridings were won by tight margins of 10 percent or less: 5 by the Conservatives, 3 by the Liberals and 4 by the NDP (the tightest margin was Elmwood Transcona won by Daniel Blaikie, at 0.1 percent). Fifteen of the ridings had margins of victory of 20 percent or more, of which 8 were held by the Conservatives and 7 by the Liberals.
Was the national chief correct in his assertion of the greater importance of the Indigenous vote? Yes, given increased Indigenous voter turnout and the increase in Indigenous MPs elected to Parliament. The Indigenous population is increasing in certain ridings, and this could be a factor in ridings with tight races.
Still, it is the 41 urban ridings where the visible minority population makes up the majority that tend to be viewed as key electoral battlegrounds and occupy the attention of the political parties.
Irrespective of electoral considerations, Indigenous issues are critical for Canada’s future, and parties would be wise to ensure their policies, platforms and rhetoric continue to engage Indigenous voters.
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