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Aboriginal leaders urging voter engagement in B.C. election

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, is pictured. He believes the B.C. Liberals under Christy Clark has been distant in engaging First Nations on issues.

With new oil pipelines, tanker routes, LNG plants, mines and hydro-power projects proposed throughout British Columbia, aboriginal leaders are telling people in their communities to get out and vote, because their future is at stake.

For the most part, native leaders are not advising community members on whom to vote for – they say that would be considered disrespectful – but they are urging people to get involved in the political process and to take a hard look at the party platforms.

What follows are the views of four B.C. native leaders, condensed and edited from interviews:

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Art Sterritt, executive director, Coastal First Nations

I think the Enbridge project is huge. Certainly in the North all through the area where Northern Gateway has been proposed, it's issue No. 1. We're not saying which party to vote for, but if people are looking at one party that is hedging their bets and setting the table for approval of Northern Gateway and another one saying they are going to stop it, you've got a pretty clear choice.

On top of the Enbridge pipeline, we also have something that's maybe even bigger and that's the LNG projects that are being proposed. We are talking literally thousands of ships that are being proposed to go up and down the coast.

I don't think the parties have distinguished themselves clearly on that issue yet, although the sitting government has made life pretty tough for us. We thought at one point in time LNG would be assessed in an environmentally sound way.

But with a government declaration that LNG is "a clean source of energy" it's really upset the apple cart, because it assumes the projects are all environmentally sound as a starting point.

One thing that is clear is that Northern Gateway has rallied native communities like I haven't seen in 30 years and that should motivate people to get out and vote. The parties have realized that, but have different approaches.

The NDP guys are meeting with local people in different regions, trying to find out what the local issues are. I see the Liberals running around making the old-style election promises and giving handouts. But I see the NDP running around talking to people, trying to figure out where people want to go. They are trying to be more engaging.

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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs

There's no doubt the issue of unresolved aboriginal title in B.C. continues to be the major outstanding issue between ourselves and any provincial government that may be in power.

It's clearly evident that the B.C. Liberals under the leadership of Premier Christy Clark have been very distant and non-committal in terms of engaging the First Nations in the province. Former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell made a significant commitment through the 'new relationship' [policy initiative] to engage on that very issue, but when Premier Clark assumed leadership of the B.C. Liberals, the relationship between the First Nations leadership council and the provincial government was put on the back burner.

The NDP appear to be making more of an effort. I believe they understand that it's a fundamental issue that stands in the way of economic certainty in the province. Clearly the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal, the new Prosperity mine, the Site C dam proposal, the fracking issue in the Northeast, the Jumbo ski resort are all prime examples of the consequences of governments not engaging the unresolved aboriginal title issue in British Columbia.

These are issues that should get people out to vote. I think more of the younger generation are inclined to engage in the democratic process in terms of voting. And I'm convinced that trend will continue during this election. More and more of our people will not only vote, but I think some of our young people will involve themselves in campaigns and work as volunteers.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president, Sto:lo Tribal Council

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The unresolved land question and resource development are the big issues. Those would be key things and the next government, if they are serious about treaty negotiations, they are going to have to revisit the treaty mandates, because they are entirely inadequate. So that's an area of concern.

Secondly is environment, coupled with a duty to consult and accommodate.

First Nations leaders, First Nations citizens, are not against development. What they are concerned about is conducting development in a sustainable fashion.

I think under Gordon Campbell the B.C. Liberals were making an effort on the 'new relationship.' I'm not sure that has been sustained with the change in leadership. I think there are concerns the B.C. Liberals haven't followed through. I know Adrian Dix as Leader of the Opposition has been meeting with many chiefs, talking about issues, talking about the kinds of things that are important to First Nations. And I'm quite sure the B.C. Liberals will be doing so, too.

You can't make a blanket statement about whether or not native communities will get out to vote. There are differences across the province. I know from my own community we get a fairly good turnout every election. But there are parts of the province where chiefs, leaders and citizens don't get as actively involved in elections – and I think they should. These decisions are important and I think we need to be heard. I'm always encouraging First Nations leaders to get informed, to get to know the candidates, to get to know the platforms and to push to make sure our issues are a point of debate and a point of discussion during the election.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief, B.C. Assembly of First Nations

When you talk about big issues, certainly top of the list and I think this goes beyond being an indigenous issue, are the major industrial resource developments that are taking place in our territories. First Nations have been speaking out quite loudly about those projects.

There's been a lot of chatter about whether those issues will inspire people to get out and vote. I think that we are challenged with community engagement in some places, but that's changing because there is a tangible impact on our territories with these various projects. And people see that.

I know the NDP through their Leader Adrian Dix have visited some of our provincial assemblies and as a leadership council we have had a meeting with him and several of his advisers on the aboriginal file. We've also continued to meet with provincial government representatives, including the Premier, but it's no secret we've had challenges ensuring there is a good relationship with the provincial government.

When it comes to advising communities how to vote, our approach is to provide the information that we are able to glean from our meetings with various non-aboriginal government leaders. We provide that to our constituents – but we certainly recognize that there's diversity in our province and each individual leader and citizen will make up their own mind.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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