By Anna Wassermann
Matthias Nunno lights up when he talks about the time he ran for a seat in Ontario’s legislature in the 2018 provincial election. One of the youngest candidates to enter the race, the 22-year-old Ryerson alumnus, who recently completed his undergraduate degree in politics and governance, says he ran for the Libertarian party, hoping to encourage political participation among constituents in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park riding.
Increasing voter turnout, however, wasn’t the only reason he put his name on the ballot.
Nunno, whose maternal grandparents are from Garden Village First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., identifies as Indigenous. He says that his candidacy was also about dispelling misconceptions people might have about his community.
“There are a lot of stereotypes out there, and impressions, and they’re not true,” he said during a telephone interview. “I [ran] to show [Ontarians] that we are people, and yes we have flaws, just like everybody else, but we can also do good and we’re productive members of society.”
Nunno describes his experience last year as unique, but he notes that he’s not the only young Indigenous person to find value in Canadian politics. He and other Indigenous activists suggest that young voters, aged 18 to 30, are demonstrating a paradigm shift in attitudes towards the Canadian electoral process. There’s growing recognition, they say, of how important it is to have their voices heard by Canadian politicians.
“Since the last election, there’s been a noticeable shift in political attitudes, and engagement has really persisted,” says Nunno. “There’s definitely a lot of young people that I know personally who are becoming more politically engaged, and across the Indigenous community.”
Historically, Indigenous people have refrained from voting in Canadian elections, prioritizing Indigenous systems of governance and voting in their nations’ elections instead. This practice, often encouraged by Elders, reflects Indigenous people’s perception of the Canadian government as a settler colonial administration that has suppressed Indigenous nationhood.
Heightened political engagement among young Indigenous people can be traced back to the 2015 federal election. Elections Canada doesn’t capture demographic information at the polls, but results from the 2016 Labour Force Survey found that Indigenous voting rates increased by 15 percentage points from 2011. Similarly, rates were found to have increased faster among young people than older Canadians.
Nunno, who lost in the riding of Parkdale-High Park by a margin of about 30,000 votes, points out that Indigenous people have only been able to vote since 1960 and suggests the growing interest in Canadian elections reflects a natural progression.
“Familiarity with this system of voting, knowing where you go, how you vote, how you look at why you vote, it’s all still new,” he said. “But more generations are getting into it.”
Suze Morrison, the NDP member at Queen’s Park for Toronto Centre, says she’s noticed more young Indigenous people engaging with the political process, but she points to a different cause.
The 31-year-old politician and community activist, who identifies as having mixed settler and Indigenous heritage, says she suspects that increased political engagement is being driven by the example of Indigenous people who in recent years have been elected in greater numbers.
“As youth start to see more Indigenous people elected into our government, they can see themselves existing in these spaces.”
In the last federal election, a record 10 Indigenous MPs were elected to the House of Commons. Provincially, there are 25 Indigenous elected officials in six legislatures across Canada.
Morrison, who sits in the Ontario legislature with fellow Indigenous NDP members Sol Mamakwa and Guy Bourgouin, says she understands the importance of her position, being able to show young Indigenous peoples that their interests are represented in Canadian politics.
“We often say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ So being among those first leaders who are stepping up and successfully being elected is exciting, and shows young people in [our] communities that that’s a space that they’re fully entitled to occupy.”
Victoria Anderson-Gardner, a fourth-year film student at Ryerson University, says she remembers a time before she felt entitled to occupy that political space. The 21-year-old, who identifies as First Nations, spent about a decade living on reserve, where she says most of her community supported self-governance.
But now, Anderson-Gardner, from Eagle Lake First Nation, just northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., suggests that young people are demonstrating the same paradigm shift in attitudes towards the Canadian electoral process as young people living off-reserve.
“Young people living on reserves have lived experience and knowledge, in terms of knowing what needs to be done for Indigenous peoples,” she says. “My age group especially, I think we’re realizing now how the political process affects us, and how we can engage with it to make change.”
Anderson-Gardner, who was recently elected to an executive position on the Ryerson Students’ Union for 2019-20, attributes this realization to greater internet access on reserves, giving young Indigenous people better access to political information.
“Until recently, I feel like not a lot of people on-reserve understood the electoral process and how it worked,” she says. “But [internet] access has really increased people’s interest in what’s happening across the rest of the country.”
Olson Crow, a member of Ryerson’s Indigenous Students’ Association, who identifies as Haudenosaunee Métis, suggests that engagement is also increasing as Indigenous-specific issues gain more recognition among mainstream politics.
“Our community has so many various issues that we don’t see in other demographics in Canada, like the reserve housing crisis that’s going on right now, the pipeline that’s going through Wet’suwet’en territory, and the missing and murdered Indigenous women crises,” Crow said. “There’s been more engagement as we see a lot of these issues start to be talked about more.”
As Indigenous issues become a greater part of the political conversation, Crow says young Indigenous people are realizing they can participate more in the political process, and put pressure on the government to deal with these issues.
In his own community, Nunno says he’s noticed the same realization among many young Indigenous peoples. He says he’s eager to see whether this culminates in high voter turnout again in 2019.
“Indigenous people make up a large portion of the Canadian population, but a large portion that historically, haven’t had a great amount of say in what the government does,” Nunno says. “Will persistent engagement the last few years change this? We’ll have to wait and see.”