Why Indigenous people must take part in the Alberta vote. And why it’s unlikely to happen

Indigenous people aren't a large percentage of Alberta's population. But if they all use their voice — and their vote — there are enough to create change, writes Mike Kortuem. His opinion piece is part of a series of personal essays the CBC is running ahead of the Alberta election.

When the choice is a rotten apple or a rotten orange, too many of us just abstain

A woman and boy with the Edmonton skyline behind them hold signs reading "Change the future" and "Every vote counts."

This column is an opinion by Mike Kortuem, an Indigenous man and member of Bigstone Cree Nation in northern Alberta. For more information about CBC's Alberta election 2023 opinion series, visit the My Priority home page.

A graphic

Last May, a tailings pond in northern Alberta started leaking.

For nine months, contaminated wastewater seeped into the landscape, trickling toward tributaries that feed local rivers. Nine months before anyone thought to tell the First Nations in the area who fish those rivers to feed their families.

For First Nations, freedom means a right to use ancestral lands for sustenance, a right to participate in the larger economy and a right to be heard politically. As an Indigenous man, I want my lands to be protected, my right to earn a living to be acknowledged and my voice to count for our future.

Gandhi said we should be the change we want to see, so in this year's provincial election, I intend to vote for freedom.

Why Indigenous people should vote

For far too long in Alberta, power has rested with politicians who cater to corporate interests. This has had devastating effects on Indigenous lands as companies swoop into native communities to exploit resources, then leave behind trails of clear-cuts, pollution and broken promises.

Too often I have listened to companies promising jobs to First Nations — all desperate to end cycles of grinding poverty in their communities — but then coming up with excuses to hire non-Indigenous people from elsewhere as they drill, cut and mine the wealth from the land.

While some resource-based jobs result from development, such employment is typically short-lived and only provides employment for a small percentage of the community. Such jobs do not compensate for the long-term effects of development, such as reduced opportunities for hunting and fishing.

Oil companies don't do much better. While these positions are well paid, the number of jobs provided does not compare well with the value of the resources taken from the land.

A report from the Canadian Energy Centre, using statistics published by the Indigenous Resources Network, boasts that Indigenous workers in oil-based jobs "make almost three times more … than the average Indigenous worker" — but completely ignores the fact that Indigenous people suffer the highest rates of unemployment of all Canadians. Even with these jobs, communities find it necessary to supplement their diets with food harvested from the wild.

The use of herbicides by forestry and electricity companies harm many deciduous berry producing plants, and has introduced glyphosate — the controversial active ingredient in products like Roundup — into the food chain.

The world-view that allows corporate interests to take precedence over Indigenous rights has resulted in communities where poverty, malnutrition, disease and chronic unemployment have become the norm. Although companies have a duty to consult with First Nations before proceeding with industrial projects that encroach on traditional territories, Alberta has allowed the process to favour companies, making it nearly meaningless.

orange brown water on a snowy landscape.

When a corporation can casually inform a First Nation that toxic pollution has been leaking into their lands for the past nine months and yet appear to face no political consequence, something needs to change.

First Nations can be the change.

First Nations people may account for a small number of Alberta's citizens but in northern communities they are the majority of all voters. With such a voting block, Indigenous people have the ability to shape Alberta politics to their greater benefit.

I would even dare say "advantage," but native people are not necessarily looking for advantages. Simply justice and recognition.

Voting as a block to elect candidates that listen to Indigenous peoples' concerns could herald an era where lands, livelihoods and people's health are better protected. It could bring a time where the Indigenous beliefs of fairness and equality means shared prosperity for all Albertans.

Insist that our voices be heard

In 2005, Pearl Calahasen, the newly re-elected Conservative MLA and first Métis woman elected in Alberta, attended an awards ceremony at the community college in Wabasca. She began her speech by thanking all those who had voted for her, but then mused with a laugh, "Not that anyone here votes!"

It's a sad truth that when it comes to provincial and federal elections, First Nation people tend not to vote. But it is not that they aren't interested in politics.

A recent band council election near Edmonton had 64 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots. When they know they can affect change, Indigenous people will vote in droves. But if given the option of a rotten apple or a rotten orange, people will naturally abstain from making a choice. After all, indifference and apathy can also make a statement.

I will be the change

Right now throughout Alberta, people in First Nations are worried about their future. They worry if the water is safe to drink, if their natural sources of food are poisoned, if their children and grandchildren have a future in their own land. Companies that leach their toxins into the environment are certainly not listening to those concerns.

Will the politicians listen?

In the upcoming provincial election, I will be casting my ballot for equality and recognition, and I will ask all my Indigenous friends and relatives to do the same. It is not important who they vote for, only that they vote.

When any politician realizes people will vote — for them or against — they will sit up and pay attention to their concerns and needs. Indigenous people need a change and I will start by voting for a change.

My Priority

What's the one thing that means the most to you in terms of the provincial election and why is that? We recruited over a dozen residents from across Alberta to answer that question. Read their opinion pieces as they're published at cbc.ca/opinionproject.

Keep in mind, these pieces should not be taken as endorsements of any particular political party by either the writers or the CBC. They are expressions of the writers' points of view, and a look at how those opinions came to be formed.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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