Natives are underrepresented in B.C.’s electoral life
Only a handful of candidates in the May 14 provincial election are of aboriginal descent.
More than 60 years after being granted the right to vote provincially, Natives are underrepresented in B.C.’s electoral life. It’s indicative of the prevalent cynicism about government, says Ron Peters, a Tsimshian running for MLA in Coquitlam–Burke Mountain.
“There’s an almost endless list of reasons why a lot of aboriginal people are extremely mistrustful of government,” Peters told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “And it’s a matter of whether you believe that there are constructive things that can be done from within government or whether you think the most effective route is simply to oppose government.”
According to the retired Vancouver Coastal Health director of services planning, the distrust is rooted in issues around ownership of land and resources as well as the destruction of indigenous culture through residential schools.
Peters, 57, is one of four Green candidates who are aboriginal. The Constitution Act defines aboriginal as Indian or First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. Only two candidates of First Nations origin—Frank Calder and Larry Guno—have been elected to the B.C. legislative assembly since Natives were given the vote in 1949. Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit was appointed to the B.C. NDP cabinet in 2000 but he lost in the election the next year.
Marc Dalton, a Metis, was elected as B.C. Liberal MLA for Maple Ridge–Mission in 2009. Dalton is seeking reelection.
According to the B.C. Liberal party headquarters, another one of its incumbent MLAs, Norm Letnick of Kelowna–Lake Country, has aboriginal roots. Letnick told the Straight by phone that although he cannot trace his specific Native lineage, his family has always held that its ancestry is partly First Nations.
Carole James of the B.C. NDP counts herself as part Metis. Elected twice as Victoria–Beacon Hill representative, James is campaigning for a third term.
Asked who among its candidates are aboriginal, the B.C. Conservative Party pointed to Nathan Giede, an Assiniboine. The Prince George–Valemount candidate said that it’s unfair to suggest that B.C. Conservatives are no friends of Natives just because party leader John Cummins opposes aboriginal title and fisheries.
“It’s very clear in our platform that we believe in consulting with local communities , both aboriginal and nonaboriginal, on things like pipelines and major projects,” Giede told the Straight by phone.
There are 376 candidates in the May 14 election for 85 seats in the legislature.
In 2004, Don Moses of the All Nations Party of B.C. recommended a mixed-member proportional-representation system of elections. This included the creation of four aboriginal electoral districts across the province. In a submission to the then–Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, Moses argued that the guaranteed election of four Native MLAs out of the 79 representatives that then composed the legislative assembly would reflect the fact that aboriginal people comprised four percent of the population.
Adam Olsen, the first Native councillor elected in Central Saanich, is running for the provincial Greens in Saanich North and the Islands.
Olsen emphasized that he self-identifies as a “mixed-blooded person”, saying his mother is of European heritage. In a phone interview, Olsen told the Straight: “My involvement in politics is strictly about bringing my two halves closer together, ensuring that our neighbourhoods and our communities are living and working alongside one another.”
According to the Green party, two others out of its 61 candidates are aboriginal, namely, Chris George and Darwin Burns in Shuswap and Burnaby-Lougheed, respectively. Burns told the Straight by phone that his grandmother was Cree.
Dan Smith, who ran federally as a Liberal in Vancouver Island North in 2000, believes that more Natives should make themselves available as candidates.
“Policies and legislation that we have today are very old and archaic,” Smith—a member of the three-person political executive of the First Nations Summit—told the Straight by phone. “And so, really, if we want to initiate change and manage change, we also have to be involved in developing the socioeconomic policies that really affect all British Columbians.”
Although Peters was modest about his chances in Coquitlam–Burke Mountain, he stressed that there’s something to be said about greater political involvement by aboriginal people in whatever shape or form. He said: “Protest is very effective, politically, and being a politician gives you the opportunity to act in ways that a protester can’t.”