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.
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 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 represent about 5,600 people 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.”