The legislature in Regina might become a more diverse place after Nov. 7 as a record number of First Nations and Métis candidates vie for seats in the upcoming provincial election.
Leading up to the campaigns, a total of 16 aboriginal people have won the nomination of the two main parties. Of the 54 candidates running for the NDP, 11 are aboriginal. And of the Saskatchewan Party’s full roster of 58, five candidates are aboriginal.
Although still not official, that is the highest number of aboriginal candidates Saskatchewan has ever seen in a provincial election.
Historically, First Nations and Métis people have remained on the political sidelines, with below average turnout in virtually every provincial election.
“Not a lot of [First Nations and Métis people] vote provincially. What inspired me to run was the knowledge that we need to get out and vote,” said Helen Ben, an NDP candidate and former chief of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council.
Ben cited Jack Layton and the federal NDP as a major influence, remembering that Layton “reached out to First Nations and Métis people. He talked about issues that First Nations could really relate to. [He was] very personable.”
Ben mentioned several hot button issues that have been affecting the northern ridings. She talked of the proposed nuclear storage facilities and the implications they would have on surrounding communities. She explained that “if [the province is] going to go through with it, we have to do it right.”
She also commented on the severe lack of job opportunities available for First Nations and Métis living on reserve.
“There are some [economic] barriers that are in place right now. We’re looking at eliminating some of these barriers.”
Ben has observed the way Saskatchewan is prospering economically, and feels aboriginal people have been “overlooked” by the government.
“In my home community and surrounding area there hasn’t been any progress [in job creation]. Our human resources are going to Alberta to look for jobs. They’re going two weeks at a time, three weeks at a time, even daily. Why don’t we attract these individuals? We say we’re a ‘have’ province.”
In 2007, Meadow Lake was one of the hardest-fought ridings in the province, and saw the conservative Sask. Party squeeze out a victory by only 17 votes, of the total 7,042 that were cast.
Ben hopes to pry that seat back out of Brad Wall’s and the Sask. Party’s hands this election.
“If you were to ask First Nations people across the board, they would say that the Sask. Party hasn’t invested in these communities.”
But Jennifer Campeau disagrees.
Campeau is working toward a PhD in native studies at the University of Saskatchewan, as well as running for the Sask. Party Nov. 7 as one of its five candidates.
She said she believes strongly in the Sask. Party and its vision for the province.
Since high school Campeau has been working behind the scenes of government and now feels ready to tackle the broad range of issues that affect the aboriginal-rich urban riding of Saskatoon-Fairview.
“The direction the province is going is very exciting. The growth, the development and having people move here from other provinces and countries — I just wanted to get involved.”
Campeau, who holds a masters of business administration from the Edwards School of Business, said she knows the importance of fiscal responsibility and feels the “center-right” stance of the Sask. Party is an ideal fit for the social fabric of Saskatchewan.
She pointed to the significant headway the Sask. Party has made working on several aboriginal education and training initiatives over the last year.
She said, regardless of race, what is most important is that residents of Saskatchewan have the tools to support their families, and have good quality of life.
“With the way the economy is going, [aboriginals] want to have a place at the table,” said Campeau.
“First Nations people don’t usually get involved with provincial politics… but I think now there’s a recognition that we must begin a relationship. Any legislation of the provincial government affects us. It affects anybody living in Saskatchewan, whether you’re First Nations or not,” said Campeau.
“We just want to see a representation that reflects our demographic.”
According to Donald Story, an associate professor of political studies at the U of S, seeing more aboriginal people interested and active in provincial politics is a giant step in the right direction, particularly in Saskatchewan.
“It’s a sign of hope,” he said.
With files from Daryl Hofmann/The Sheaf
graphic: Matthew Stefanson/The Sheaf