In Canada's far north, candidate seeks to be indigenous people's voice

Val-d'Or (Canada) (AFP) –


As she campaigns ahead of parliamentary elections next week, Lise Kistabish has a message for Canada's marginalized indigenous people: she will make their concerns heard.

"I want to make the point that we are here and that we have a voice," Kistabish told AFP on a recent campaign stop in the sparsely populated northern Quebec.

Kistabish, 54, an indigenous community organizer, has been traveling thousands of kilometers (miles) to meet with voters in the electoral district of Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, where indigenous people make up 38 percent of eligible voters.

The district is about one and a half times the size of France. Here, small towns and villages are often several hundred kilometers apart.

"I want to provide solutions and bring the region's priorities to parliament," Kistabish, a short woman with closely cropped hair, told AFP during a stop in Waswanipi, a Cree community of 2,000 inhabitants.

"We can learn from history. I want horror stories not to be repeated. I want to make sure that this message is carried to parliament," she added.

Kistabish was referring to the discovery last summer of more than 1,200 unmarked graves at former indigenous residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan provinces that exposed a dark chapter in Canada's history.

Lise Kistabish gives a look to her rival, Bloc Quebecois candidate Sylvie Berube during the official debate in Val d’Or, Quebec, Canada on September 9, 2021
Lise Kistabish gives a look to her rival, Bloc Quebecois candidate Sylvie Berube during the official debate in Val d’Or, Quebec, Canada on September 9, 2021 Andrej Ivanov AFP

Until the 1990s, some 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis youths were forcibly enrolled in the schools, where students were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language.

- 'Children were taken away' -

Kistabish was born to an Algonquin mother and a Cree father and grew up in the indigenous community of Pikogan, 600 kilometers (375 miles) north of Montreal.

She worked in various indigenous organizations before she decided to enter politics to try to "change things."

Kistabish is running in the September 20 election under the Liberal banner of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she says, because the party puts "human values first."

Her constituents, she says, are mainly concerned about access to housing, jobs, and Canada's ongoing reconciliation with its more than 600 indigenous tribes.

During a local candidates debate in Val-d'Or, the largest city in the region, Kistabish launched into her non-indigenous opponents saying: "You don't understand what it is to live in a community whose children were taken away."

The same day, she covered hundreds of kilometers campaigning with the federal minister of indigenous services, courting voters in the village of Senneterre and tacking campaign signs to telephone poles in Lebel-sur-Quevillon.

She is not the only indigenous candidate from the region vying for a seat in the House of Commons. Pauline Lameboy is running for the leftist New Democratic Party.

Andrej Ivanov AFP

But there is more kinship than rivalry between them.

"I am proud of Lise. She's not my competitor, she's my sister," said Lameboy.

Having two strong indigenous candidates among a total of five contenders in the race delights Andrew Kistabish, a 27-year-old Algonquin father of three.

"It's inspiring for others who may one day want to follow in their footsteps," he told AFP outside his Pikogan residence, adding that he is torn between which of the two to vote for.

- Voting hesitancy -

One of the top challenges for candidates here is getting people out to vote. "It's not a natural reflex for many First Nations people to vote in Canadian elections," said Edith Cloutier, executive director of the Native Friendship Center of Val-d'Or.

However, Kistabish and Lameboy's participation in the race may produce a larger than usual indigenous turnout at the polls, she said.

Sebastien Brodeur-Girard, who teaches native studies at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Temiscamingue, said that having two indigenous women on the ballot here is a welcome development. First Nations people only got the right to vote in Canada in the 1960s, he added.

"I think they are leading the way," said Cloutier. "By participating in these elections, they are demonstrating that anything is possible for indigenous women."