OTTAWA — A young two-spirit Métis leader hopes he can deliver one of the biggest upsets of the election campaign, if he can persuade apathetic voters to head to the polls Monday.
NDP candidate Blake Desjarlais has started a dynamic voter turnout drive to persuade thousands of Edmonton residents to register.
The Edmonton Griesbach seat, where the NDP came second in the 2019 federal election, has now become a top target for Leader Jagmeet Singh. If elected, the 27-year-old Desjarlais would be Alberta’s only Indigenous MP.
The incumbent Conservative, Kerry Diotte, won the seat in the last election with 51 per cent of the vote.
Diotte has served as the Tories’ deputy critic for national revenue and public procurement, and says on his campaign website that a Tory government would support Alberta's interests and future prosperity.
Also running in the riding are Habiba Mohamud for the Liberals, Heather Lau for the Greens and Thomas Matty for the People’s Party of Canada.
To win in Edmonton Griesbach, the NDP will also have to persuade Liberal supporters to vote tactically, and mobilize apathetic and undecided voters.
Desjarlais said inspiring "the very large non-voting population" to go to the polls has been "the bread and butter of the campaign." He is confident of boosting voter turnout by 10 per cent.
In the last election, only 47,000 of the 83,000 registered voters in the riding turned up on polling day, Elections Canada figures show.
"We have one of the largest voter apathy constituencies in all of Canada (and) … one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country," Desjarlais said. "My challenge has been making people feel that the federal government can work for them."
Desjarlais has been running drives to get voters to register for mail-in ballots, with information campaigns on when and where to vote.
"We think that if we get above 60 per cent, we will have served the community well — regardless of if I win," he said.
Desjarlais, who grew up in a Métis settlement north of Edmonton, said the riding has one of the largest urban Indigenous populations in Canada.
Ten per cent of voters are Indigenous and he has been holding get-out-the-vote events, with dancers and musicians, where he can "talk to them about their opportunity to vote and how important it is to have Indigenous representation in Parliament," he said.
Desjarlais said he sees huge commonality of interest between many groups, including Indigenous people and immigrants, who make up the riding. Access to health care and housing are big issues for all, he added.
"(These are) people who work over 12 hours a day, single-parent families and multi-ethnic families," he said. "There are a tremendous number of people who would vote New Democrat who just don’t vote because of life."
Desjarlais, whose parents grew up in homes where Cree was the first language, was brought up by his aunt. His birth mother, who was brought up in foster care in multiple homes, was forced to give him up as a newborn after struggling with addiction.
He said his aunt fought the government to keep him in the family when he was a baby and brought him up in one of Canada’s few Métis settlements.
The activist said he was wary of politicians, but he was persuaded to join the NDP due to the party's approach to Indigenous issues while he was negotiating with the federal government as a Métis leader.
The decision by the Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to throw Jody Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous former cabinet minister, out of the caucus over the SNC-Lavalin affair turned him off of the party.
He said Indigenous people need more representation in Ottawa because they are "people who value life above greed, and life above profit."
During the election campaign elders and chiefs, who came out to support Desjarlais, sang the "Honour Song," which is reserved for esteemed Indigenous leaders.
“One of proudest moments in my life was to have the 'Honour Song.' My ancestors, my relatives, hundreds of people were there."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press