When it comes to electing First Nations people from British Columbia to the Legislature or Parliament, all political parties have to do better.
The right of First Nations to vote was finally acknowledged in 1949 in BC (not until 1960 federally). Nisga’a Frank Calder was elected from the riding of Atlin in 1949, representing the CCF. He served most of the next 30 years as MLA from that riding. In 1972, he was the first aboriginal person appointed to cabinet in BC, though was later removed by Premier Dave Barrett. According to a biography of Calder, the NDP moved on from Calder, nominating another candidate in the 1975 election. Calder left the NDP, joined the Social Credit Party, and was elected for the last time. A recipient of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, Calder’s career deserves more attention, which included his leadership role in the Calder case, massively significant to the recognition of aboriginal rights and land claims.
Yet few others have followed in Calder’s wake. Larry Guno was elected as an NDP MLA from Atlin between 1986-1991 but did not run again. Until Melanie Mark was elected in the Mt. Pleasant by-election, there had been no First Nations representation since 1991 in the BC Legislature. I was hopeful that Marian Wright, a former Chief, would succeed for the BC Liberals in 2009 in North Island but she fell short.
The story federally from BC isn’t any better. Len Marchand was elected as a Liberal in Kamloops amidst the first round of Trudeamania in 1968. He held the seat twice, and until 2015, had been the only Liberal to represent a seat in the Interior for decades. Len went on to serve in the Senate. He passed away last year, but left a considerable legacy. In particular, he was a strong advocate for First Nations representation in Parliament. He made an important point – First Nations populations are scattered across Canada with diluted voting strength on a riding by riding basis. It was no coincidence that the only riding to elect a First Nations person was the one riding where First Nations had the numbers . Len thought that aboriginal people should have guaranteed representation based on their proportion of the population. It’s an interesting point and it remains to be seen if recent advances in representation make such a guarantee a moot point.
Marchand had been the only First Nations person elected to Parliament from BC, ever, until 2015. Jody Wilson-Raybould became the second, and the first First Nations woman elected from BC since Confederation. She busted through the ceiling and then some, with her appointment as Minister of Justice.
Today, there is a heightened awareness and advocacy for aboriginal representation in our institutions. Provincial legislatures are starting to see higher levels of representation as is the federal Parliament. Groups and networks have formed to promote indigenous representation.
But what about BC and this election? Premier Christy Clark has made it a priority to recruit First Nations leaders to run as candidates. She has three strong candidates running in seats held by the NDP that can be described as ‘swing’, meaning they should be close races. Former Haisla Chief Councillor Ellis Ross is running in Skeena; Wanda Good, who has served as a deputy Chief and an advocate for First Nations women, is running in Stikine; and former Nanwakolas Council president Dallas Smith is running in North Island.
The Premier took some flak for appointing Ellis Ross as candidate in Skeena. She did it because she felt she needed a leader like Ellis in the Legislature. She went out and recruited Wanda and Dallas to the team as well, and ensured they have local teams to support them. This week, the BC Liberals launched a 30-second TV spot promoting their First Nations candidates. The party is making the election of these candidates a priority.
The NDP nominated and elected Melanie Mark in the Mt. Pleasant by-election. Mark became the first First Nations woman elected to the BC Legislature which, like the election of Wilson-Raybould, was long, long overdue.
But then there is the curious case of the Fraser-Nicola riding. Chief Aaron Sam of the Lower Nicola Indian Band, a lawyer, sought the NDP nomination. NDP Leader John Horgan asked former MLA Harry Lali to stand down and make way for Sam. Lali refused. At this point, Horgan has a choice. He can override Lali and appoint Sam, or he can let it play out. Horgan let it play out and Lali, a four-term former MLA, got the votes.
Simply put, Horgan did not make the nomination of Chief Aaron Sam a top priority. If he wanted to make it happen, he could have. The NDP can claim ‘local democracy’ but its nomination process is already a shambles when it comes grassroots democracy. NDP minority-preference rules have already caused confusion and resentment in places like Columbia River-Revelstoke, Cowichan Valley, and Skeena. I understand Horgan’s choice. Nomination politics can be messy and Harry Lali would surely have not gone quietly into the night. It just means one less First Nations leader seeking a seat in the Legislature, which is too bad considering our history. It also means one less leadership moment for Horgan, especially at a time his party should be looking for renewal.
Premier Clark stuck her neck out and is proudly campaigning alongside three strong First Nations candidates. So far the Greens (including Deputy Leader Adam Olsen) and NDP have two First Nations candidates each, perhaps more will emerge. Let’s hope all parties in the future stick their necks out when necessary to get First Nations candidates on the ballot and into the Legislature. It would make a difference. From my side of the ledger, I hope to see Ellis, Wanda, and Dallas elected on May 9th.
BC Liberal candidates on video:
- Ellis Ross, Skeena
- Wanda Good, Stikine
- Dallas Smith, North Island