NEW DEMOCRATIC incumbent Nathan Cullen should continue to profit by strong support within the aboriginal voting community in this federal election, says a University of British Columbia political analyst.
Cullen, seeking re-election for the fourth straight time, has been the overwhelming favourite among aboriginal voters since he was first elected in the 2004 federal election for the Skeena – Bulkley Valley riding.
“The NDP continue to have policies that are more sympathetic to First Nations interests in general,” says Michael Murphy, who has studied aboriginal turnout from a historical perspective.
In 2011, Cullen’s support within the aboriginal community could be seen in places such as in the Nass Valley where he received 253 votes to 14 for Conservative challenger Clay Harmon, in Moricetown near Smithers where he received 181 votes compared to Harmon’s 11 and at Kitsumkalum where Cullen out-polled Harmon by 146 to 28 votes.
The NDP’s vocal stance opposing the construction of oil-carrying pipelines and oil-carrying tankers has been popular among fisheries-based and other communities, said Murphy.
Cullen has become one of the key figures in regional opposition to Enbridge’s planned Northern Gateway pipeline which would pump Alberta crude to a marine export terminal at Kitimat.
And he’s proposed a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to ban oil tankers from the north coast.
Cullen’s also been strong in larger communities where aboriginals make up a large portion of the population.
He’s also increased his share of the vote each time out, from 37 per cent in 2004, his first victory, to his fourth in 2011 when he received 55 per cent of the vote.
As a sign of aboriginal support for Cullen, one of his opponents in his first victory in 2004 was Haida leader Miles Richardson who ran for the Liberal party.
Cullen’s 37 per cent of the vote in 2004, however, was significantly higher than Richardson’s 21.5 per cent.
The Liberal vote has declined each election since (falling as low as 3.61 per cent in 2011) with Cullen being the beneficiary.
Meanwhile, the Conservative vote has remained locked in the 33 per cent range in every election since 2004.
Aboriginal voting did increase slightly with the on-reserve turn out rising by 2.1 per cent between 2008 and 2011 in this riding from 47.6 per cent to 49.7 per cent averaged out over 81 on-reserve polls.
According to Murphy, neither the current federal Conservative government or previous federal Liberal ones have done particularly well in gathering the aboriginal vote.
The string of Liberal governments from 1993-2006 started off with strong aboriginal support but then exited on a bad note, said Murphy.
“At the end of the [Jean] Chretien era, indigenous people across Canada were kind of getting fed up, they were like well, we started off pretty good but a lot of the policies coming down at the end of the Chretien era didn’t look great,” said Murphy.
He cited proposal Liberal aboriginal government legislation which First Nations leaders said resembled the Indian Act.
As for the current Conservative government, Murphy says its policies have not pleased the aboriginal electorate either.
“The Tories have done a number of things that have been incredibly unpopular. The removal of the environmental protections which really got the Idle No More movement up and running being one,” he said.
And while the NDP has never been elected to govern Canada, positions taken have solidified the party image as friendly to the cause of aboriginals.
That said, Murphy also believes the policies and promises of the NDP, for instance calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal people, is more based on principles and less on strategy, because of the small overall percentage of the vote that First Nations wield across the country.
Historically, aboriginal people were denied the right to vote until mid-century, he added, and many choose not to vote to this today.