He has worked as a plumber, recreation director, heavy-equipment operator and native job counsellor. But George Hickes, a 44-year-old Inuk, says that no job has tested him like running for a seat in the Manitoba legislature. “This is the toughest thing I have had to face,” said Hickes, the NDP candidate in Winnipeg’s poverty-stricken Point Douglas riding. Hickes’s Conservative opponent is another native: Calvin Pompana, 46, former president of the Urban Indian Association. In fact, an unprecedented eight natives have shouldered the challenge of seeking political office in Manitoba’s Sept. 11 election. “It is the Elijah factor,” said Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, referring to NDP MLA Elijah Harper, the Ojibwa Cree who in June blocked passage of the Meech Lake constitutional accord in Manitoba.
In the past legislature, Harper, who is virtually assured of retaining his northern Manitoba riding of Rupertsland, sat as the sole aboriginal MLA. And Indian leaders acknowledge that political interest among the province’s 67,000 natives has been slow to develop. But they add that, fuelled largely by Harper’s well-publicized stand against Meech Lake because he claimed that it did not address aboriginal rights, Indians have begun to believe that they can influence the political course of events. “There is a new sense that natives can make a difference,” said Cyril Keeper, 47, a Manitoba Cree who served as a Winnipeg NDP MP for eight years.
But the new interest in politics among Indians has led to at least two cases where natives
are running against each other in the same ridings. And the rush to recruit Indian candidates has led to some embarrassment for political organizers. In St. Boniface, the Liberals promoted the fact that Neil Gaudry is a Métis—the offspring of a white-Indian marriage. “Mr. Gaudry quickly informed us he did not want to be referred to as native, but as French-Canadian,” said one Liberal official. “He did not want to appear to be climbing on the native bandwagon.” In The Pas, Tory organizers announced that their candidate, community college administrator Alfred McDonald, was Métis. Hours later, party officials sheepishly acknowledged that McDonald’s background is Chinese and Scottish.
Still, the parties are clearly aware of the potential appeal of Indian and part-Indian candidates, especially in northern Manitoba, where natives constitute up to half of some riding populations. In the NDP bastion of Flin Flon, for one, the Liberals are clearly hoping that their candidate, Pascali Bighetty, can score an upset over New Democrat incumbent Jerry Storie, a white. Bighetty, chief of the Mathias Colomb band in Pukatawagan, Man., is a real estate millionaire who has served as Canada’s aboriginal representative at United Nations meetings on native self-government and the environment. But, one way or another, as the campaign entered its final week it appeared unlikely that Harper would again be the sole native voice in the Manitoba legislature.
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