The Okanagan Indian Band won’t be endorsing any political party in this year’s federal election for fear that it could have a negative impact on the band’s future ability to partner with the federal government.
OKIB chief Byron Louis says aboriginal leaders have been stung in the past by publicly supporting one party over another and he added that he has rarely voted in federal elections because he doesn’t want his band to suffer the consequences of supporting the wrong party.
“Asking First Nations at the national level and down to endorse any political party puts us in a very bad position,” said Louis. “In the past we have suffered greatly for this. We are not in a position to be critical of anybody because they have a way of making us pay. It’s undeniable and a reality for a lot of First Nations. Why take a chance (by voting) if you are going to be penalized for your vote.”
Louis pointed to high profile First Nations leaders such as Ovide Mercredi, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1994 to ’97, who had a close relationship to prime minister Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative party. But according to Louis, when the Liberals took power after the PC, funding to to the AFN was slashed.
Louis also said it was the same with national chief Matthew Coon Come (2000 to 2003), who spoke out against PM Jean Chretien and Canada’s treatment of aboriginals only to see funding cut by as much as a third the next year.
Louis said while the privacy of individual band member votes would be protected it wouldn’t be difficult for the governing party to find out who a particular native band was supporting. But he added as First Nations groups continue to evolve and become more self sufficient with development of its reserve land, the backlash for speaking out may come to an end.
“The current process of punishing First Nations for being outspoken is going to be short-lived,” said Louis. “Once First Nations get back on their economic feet they will not have the opportunity to do that. With economic power, you finally get the respect of the powers that be. Up to this date we have been low in economic power but as that grows so does the ability to start to win influence.”
Louis said the seven different native bands in the Okanagan (The OKIB, WFN, Penticton, Osoyoos, Upper and Lower Similkameen and Upper Nicola) represent some 5,600 First Nations whose economic power is growing with more and more development on native land. And he said that development also serves to stimulate the local and regional economies.
So while Louis said this year’s federal election is important, it’s more important that First Nations groups have a solid partnership with whichever party is in power.
“For us there is no denying the importance of every federal election for aboriginal people and this one is no different,” he said. “We have to really look at the parties and who actually has the potential for forming government and what the platform is going to be for the next four years.”
In terms of issues, Louis said the environment and specifically water is a major issue moving forward, especially for those living within 250 kilometres of the Canada-US border, where the majority of Canada’s population resides, putting the most stress on water systems.
“We’re quite concerned with the lifting of the protection of water in some of these omnibus bills,” he said. “To us that’s absurd. To lift restrictions or guidelines to protect water doesn’t make sense. It’s an important issue for everyone. For First Nations the basis of a lot of our Supreme Court challenges have been fish and aquatic resources. We’re very concerned about it and so should everybody else be.”
With respect to the federal election Louis said he believes OKIB members are paying close attention to the campaign. But with a small band of about 2,000 members, he says it’s not like they can make a huge difference in the vote.
“Without a doubt I really believe that there is a high percentage of our members that are paying attention because whoever is sitting behind the Prime Minister’s desk has the ability to affect them,” said Louis. “I think our people are watching. But when you take into consideration our numbers, it’s not really like we could greatly effect any number of elections in the Okanagan Valley. There are places where First Nations in Canada can make a difference in some northern ridings where First Nations are 40 or 50 per cent of the population. But for a lot of us we are more or less dictated to by demographics.”