If Darryl Angus has his way, record numbers of Aboriginal people will be heading for the polls when the next provincial election is held in Saskatchewan.
Angus is one of the three founders of the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Education and Voter Registration Drive, a nonprofit organization formed to encourage Aboriginal people to take part in the election process at all levels.
Angus, along with Jason Bear and Donald Morin, founded the organization last January while all three were Sociology majors at the University of Saskatchewan.
"We were just thinking, you know, nobody ever votes, especially grass roots Aboriginal people, they hardly vote. And we were thinking that something needs to be done," Angus said.
"We were thinking of some way to inform people that it's important to vote. And I guess we kind of got the idea from what the Black American people did back in the 1960's, and that's kind of where we got the idea, trying to empower Aboriginal people, through education, that their vote counts."
"Aboriginal people, for the past 20 years or so now, we've heard it over and over again. They've been working toward self-determination, self government. And here's what I've been telling people. If we are so apathetic in the future-and we are in a state of apathy within Aboriginal communities with regard to voting- if that remains . . . if we don't do anything in terms of our individual vote, Aboriginal people are working towards self-extermination, I call it. Kind of a strong word, but I think it needs to be heard out there," Angus said.
"Aboriginal people have to participate within the mainstream political system for now, in order to work their way out of the system in the future."
The Saskatchewan Aboriginal Education and Voter Registration Drive swung into high gear last fall, working to get its message out during the federal election campaign. According to Angus, they were successful, with an increase in the Aboriginal voter turn-out in Saskatchewan.
Angus, Bear and Morin spread their message leading up to the federal election by doing radio interviews and running ads on Missinippi Broadcasting Corp., an Aboriginal-owned radio station serving Northern Saskatchewan. They also went door-to-door, mainly in the larger urban communities, and spoke to chiefs and councillors. And in Angus' home community of Onion Lake, transportation was provided to take voters from their homes to the polling station at the band hall.
Part of the organization's mandate is to help inform Aboriginal people about the platforms of the various political parties.
"We are not affiliated with any party, and we don't advocate for any party. We are just out there discussing, and getting the message out there what each political party is all about."
Since they started up a year ago, the organization has run into some opposition from within the Aboriginal community, especially from the older generation, Angus said.
"What they say is it contradicts what First Nations people signed with the federal government, and they think it will affect treaty rights. But I've been saying that, you know, especially at the federal level, and at the provincial level at the same time too, that once mainstream politicians realize that Aboriginal people are becoming aware of their right to vote, that's when they are going to listen to Aboriginal people."
In addition to getting more Aboriginal people to vote, Angus said the organization is also working towards getting more Aboriginal people into political office.
"Whenever I talk to people, you know, having even one Aboriginal person in provincial or federal politics, makes a big difference. And I always remind them of what happened in 1990, where Elijah Harper sat at the Manitoba Legislature. It took only one Aboriginal person to change the constitutional debate in Canada," Angus said.
With a provincial election for Saskatchewan looming just over the horizon, Angus said the organizaton has aldy begun gearing up for its own provincial campaign. He expects the organization will take basically the same approach provincially as it did federally, relying on the media, and door-to-door canvassing to get the message out to Aboriginal people that their votes do count.
In the long term, Angus hopes the organization can work toward educating Aboriginal youth about their right to vote, possibly through development of a workshop that can be incorporated into the junior high and high school curriculum.
"Right now, there are a lot of 15, 16 year-old kids out there, in every province. And those are the people that will make an impact four years from now in the next federal election," Angus said.
"It has to start with educating the Aboriginal youth on their right to vote, on the history of voting, why voting is important, and teaching them a combination of treaty rights."
For more information about the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Education and Voter Registration Drive, or to find out how you can volunteer with the organization, call Darryl Angus at 306-837-2321, Jason Bear at 306-244-6027, or Donald Morin at 306-966-2505.