Jack Knox: Indigenous voice grows in Island politics

Forget running for election. For much of her life, Lydia Hwitsum’s mother wasn’t even allowed to vote.

That’s just a bit of background, a bit of perspective, to explain why it’s noteworthy that the Oct. 21 election will, for the first time, feature at least four Indigenous candidates on Vancouver Island.

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New Democrat Bob Chamberlin and Liberal Michelle Corfield are going head to head in Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Racelle Kooy is the Green candidate in Victoria. Hwitsum is also running for the Greens, in Cowichan-Malahat-Langford. Hwitsum mentioned her mother when asked about the historical underrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the House of Commons.

Federal voting rights weren’t extended to status Indians — the common term of the day — until 1960. Even after that, few ran for office. Parliament felt like somebody else’s club.

It was band councils, not the far-off federal and provincial governments, that Indigenous people tended to rely on for elected representation. It’s not as though Ottawa politicians were eagerly clearing space at the big table for the natives.

In fact, in all of Canada’s history, there have been only 39 Indigenous members of Parliament, including just two in B.C. — Kamloops’s Len Marchand, who surfed in on the Trudeaumania wave of 1968, and Vancouver Island-raised Jody Wilson-Raybould, who sailed in on the Trudeaumania 2.0 tide four years ago, only to see that relationship end up on the rocks.

That 2015 election was a high-water mark. Voter turnout on reserves soared 14 points to 61.5 per cent, not far off the overall rate of 66 per cent. Across Canada, ballots listed a record 54 Indigenous candidates. Ten of them won, including eight Liberals, though the faith placed in the prime minister (“Get ’er done” a dying Gord Downie urged Trudeau at the Tragically Hip’s last concert) was later tested.

Never mind. This isn’t about Trudeau or any politician in particular. The important thing, the candidates say, is being on the inside, not out. It’s about being part of the conversation.

Why the shift? A series of court decisions gave Indigenous people a taste of empowerment, left them more insistent about being part of the decision-making process, Chamberlin says.

“We need to be inside that machine to speak.”

As it is, the status quo isn’t working for anyone, he says. Those court decisions might guarantee consultation before governments can approve resource projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, but that consultation process provides neither a veto for First Nations nor certainty for potential investors who are now reluctant to risk capital on projects they fear will get hung up in never-ending lawsuits. Better to have an approach where everyone is working on the decisions together, as was the case when aquaculture companies, the province and three up-Island bands — including the Kwikwastu’inuxw Haxwa’mis, of whom Chamberlin was until recently the elected chief — sorted out what appeared to be an intractable fish-farming conflict.

For Corfield, the change came as Canada moved away from Indian Act restrictions that kept Indigenous people on the outside. “Now, more than ever, First Nations feel they have a place in Canadian society, for the most part.”

She felt the change on a personal level. While serving with Indigenous organizations trying to make headway with government, “I was always the outsider trying to push in.” Then she started to build up experience in other areas, ended up chairing the Nanaimo Port Authority.

A turning point came when, as a member of the ethics committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., she found herself wrestling with policy on assisted suicide. “The lens I had to look through was as a Canadian.” Corfield figured she had equipped herself with the tools she needed to become an MP, though she still had to ask herself a question: “I thought ‘Is it time for an Indigenous person to run? Is society OK with this?’ ”

Timing was also key for Hwitsum. In the Greens, she found a party whose values aligned with her own. She also believed it was better to try to win a place at the decision-making table than to lobby Parliament from the outside. “That seemed like a possibility now.”

“Diversity helps us,” she says. “Different voices around the table help us find solutions we didn’t know were there because we weren’t working together.”

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