Indigenous women in expansive Quebec riding taking up the political torch

Indigenous women in the mammoth riding of Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou in northern Quebec are stepping up to fill the spot left when NDP MP Romeo Saganash announced that he’s stepping away from federal politics.

Jacline Rouleau – currently serving her third term as the Mayor of Senneterre – is running for the NDP.

“I’m born of a Quebecois father and an Ojibwe mother who valued traditional learning on the territory, and entrepreneurship,” she said.

Rouleau is hoping to pick up where Saganash started eight years ago, when he rode to victory in the “La Vague Orange,” the Orange Wave that saw the NDP take 59 seats in Quebec alone.

Saganash made history by being the first Indigenous MP to be elected in Quebec; earlier this year, he announced that he would not be seeking re-election.

Rouleau is one of seven candidates in the riding. Spanning a total of 854,754 km – more than half of Quebec’s total land mass – it’s the largest riding in a Canadian province, enveloping dozens of First Nations, and Inuit communities on its territory.

“The vision of the NDP is that of a government working for ordinary people,” Rouleau said.

“This is also my vision. I am from the region, and I am working for people from the region.”

Rouleau said her priorities are protecting waterways, fixing housing inequities, and supporting economic development.

Those are echoed by the riding’s only other Indigenous candidate, Kiara Cabana-Whiteley.

The Inuk teen from Kuujjuaq, a recent honors graduate, is running for the Green party.

She said healthcare, Indigenous women’s rights, education and climate action are her campaign priorities.

“[I] recently worked at the Tulattavik Health Centre in Kuujjuaq where [I] was saddened to discover that healthcare in Nunavik was not up to the same standards as the healthcare offered to other Quebecers living down south,” reads Cabana-Whiteley’s explanatory bio on the Green Party website.

Rouleau, however, said she aspires to further Saganash’s work, including adopting the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law; a proposal that still causes friction with the Conservative party.

Conservative candidate Martin Ferron said he wants to see better access to nutrition.

“For First Nations in the north, buying a box of macaroni for $12 like in Kuujuuaq, it’s unacceptable,” he said.

“It’s discrimination to not allow the people access to proper nutrition.”

The Liberal party on the other hand is making promises about more investments if kept in power.

“Are aware that we can’t rectify centuries of injustice in just a few years, but we’re convinced that the strides that we’ve made in the last four years have set the pace for a long-term collaboration,” said Liberal candidate Isabelle Bergeron.

In the spirit of collaboration, most candidates agree on the need to bolster Indigenous votes.

In 2015, just over half of the riding’s 63,000 eligible voters turned out – although it’s an increase from last election, the number represents a gradual decrease in voter turnout from previous years.

One criticism made towards this year’s crop of candidates is their lack of fluency in English. Of the five Federal candidates who debated in Val d’Or ahead of the election, none are comfortable speaking English at length.

While only three per cent of the population in the Abitibi riding speak English – fourth behind French (63%), Cree (17%) and Inuktitut (13.4%) – Rouleau says she’s willing to learn more.

Fostering better relationships with English-speaking Indigenous peoples living in Quebec was one of the recommendations made in the Viens Commission’s final report.

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