Calgary is home to nearly 30,000 Indigenous people, almost three per cent of its total population and rising. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the slate of council members, only one of whom openly claims Metis ancestry.
According to sources, while it’s important for Calgary to have more Indigenous political leaders, it’s hardly surprising there aren’t many.
“I think because of the racism,” Josie Nepinak, executive director of the Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society said.
“Calgary, while it’s a welcoming sort of a melting pot, there still isn’t acceptance of Indigenous people, even though we were the first peoples here… I think it is very difficult for people to recognize that Indigenous people have capabilities, intelligence and capacity to be able to run in council and be part of the municipal government.”
Racism was a barrier that many expressed.
Michelle Robinson is a Ward 10 councillor candidate and one of the first First Nations women to run for city council. She is half Dene, but she grew up in Calgary with her father and his wife who are both non-Indigenous.
Although Robinson has become a respected leader in the Indigenous community, she experienced a lot of shame growing up.
“I would hear all these negative things about Indigenous [people] and it took me a long time to talk about being Indigenous,” she said. “I didn’t even consider talking about being Indigenous until I was in my thirties.”
Robinson has since found pride in her culture and is honoured to be running in this year’s election.
“I am a person of extreme privilege to be in this position to be running,” she said. “For me to not acknowledge that and to not honour that would also be problematic. Then I might as well just be another person running for city council.”
This is contrasted with the lack of privilege most Indigenous people face. Not only do they experience extreme levels of racism in Canada, but they have been overrepresented across many social services for a long time.
These statistics are largely the result of a history steeped in colonization, residential school trauma and attempted cultural genocide, but they continue to create large barriers for many.
Nikita Kahpeaysewat, a student at Mount Royal University said she believes poverty and lack of opportunity and education play a role in the number Indigenous people running for city council.
“Most people here are the first in their family to graduate and get a degree. So I think it is just baby steps to get there,” she said.
Adding to all of this, Liam Haggarty, associate professor of Indigenous studies at MRU, said many Indigenous people don’t want to be involved in politics.
“Government has been a site of marginalization and exclusion forever for Indigenous people. Why take part in the systems and mechanisms that have oppressed you and your nation for decades if not centuries?”
Despite this, many agree that it’s still vital for Indigenous people to be a part of the process by voting and putting their names forward for election office.
“Oh I think it is extremely critical,” said Nepinak. “We had a number of very significant developments over the years.”
Of those, she mentioned the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Act, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the missing and murdered Indigenous women nationwide and the over representation of Indigenous children in our provincial systems.
“And so there is reason to work with municipalities at that level to decrease those numbers and ensure recommendations made at all levels are implemented. And only an Indigenous person pushing that will make that happen,” said Nepinak.
Having a voice on city council to push these issues is exactly why Robinson decided to run.
“When I heard enough people say, ‘I’m running’ and it was very clear Indigenous issues were never going to be on their table, it was like, I have to run,” she said.
But it wasn’t an instant decision.
“Who have we seen in council? I’ve always seen basically old men number one, never Indigenous people. So it’s hard for me to go yeah, I totally belong there,” said Robinson.
But, obviously we have extreme problems because we don’t have proper representation. So I ended up making the decision that enough people seemed to think I should run, maybe I should run.”
And Robinson running for council may inspire more to do so next election.
“I really do feel that our people need to get in leadership roles,” Kahpeaysewat said. “Just to represent our people and for our people to have a role model to look up to. Like, ‘hey there is a native woman in city council, there should be more.’ That type of encouragement we need.”
But Haggarty believes to really see true reconciliation, our systems are in need of a more drastic change.
“It's not just about having more Indigenous politicians in office, it's also about changing the political system to better represent the Indigenous Nations of Canada,” he said.
“We can't fix the problems that we've created through systems, with the same systems left intact.”
Haggarty believes our systems need to be modified to make room for Indigenous understandings of politics, governance and leadership. Instead of squeezing Indigenous people into our ways of politics, we should be looking at how to adapt our systems to better accommodate their ways of thinking.
“I hope that as much as the conversation is about more Indigenous voices, it's also about how we are listening to them because I think that we have got more work to do there,” he said.
In 2014, Winnipeg elected their first Indigenous mayor, Brian Bowman, who is Metis. The win was seen as a victory for the city’s Indigenous people, who make up nearly 10 per cent of that city’s population.
Calgary won’t have an Indigenous mayor, but we may have a First Nations councillor. Robinson is looking forward to election day, and she hopes the ground that is made will benefit future generations.
“I hope one day our kids are very proud of who they are and they see themselves as represented and as possible candidates for running for city council, for running for mayor, for running for municipal MLA positions and federal MP positions,” said Robinson.
- By Amy Simpson