Should First Nations be part of Canadian elections? 50 years after getting the vote, debate rages on

It’s been just over half a century since First Nations gained the right to cast a ballot in Canadian federal elections back in 1960.

Back at the time of Confederation, members of First Nations were originally not recognized as Canadian citizens and therefore could not participate in federal elections without giving up their treaty rights and ‘Indian Status.’

That process — known as enfranchisement — meant individual Indians lost all legal claims to rights set forth in the treaties as well as certain federal ‘entitlements’ reserved for them under the Indian Act. In some cases, it even meant the enfranchised would be unable to return to their community.

And while some things have changed greatly in Aboriginal circles over these past five decades, the rate of electoral participation by First Nations individuals remains relatively low. The reasons for this election apathy are wide-ranging; from historical grievances to lack of interest or education in Canadian politics, to feelings of irrelevancy.

Then there is the matter of whether a First Nation person should even cast a ballot to begin with, a controversy as old as the gaining of the franchise itself.

Amidst this debate raging on between educators, traditionalists, policy analysts, First Nation leaders and youth, perhaps none have expressed themselves as forcefully or unequivocally on the subject as Dr. Taiaiake Alfred. A Kanien’kehaka professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Alfred is a well known academic and commentator on traditional governance and so-called ‘decolonization strategies.’ To him, Indigenous participation in Canadian elections is a sign not only of “the failure of our leadership [but] the slow, and gradual and fading away of any real sense of being Native.”

The idea of leaders and intellectuals promoting political energy and activism into a political party in the Canadian electoral system is harmful, according to Alfred. He says First Nation leaders need to promote the idea of nationhood instead: “They talk about it all the time, and yet they are massive hypocrites by getting involved in electoral politics.”

Though he claims he doesn’t begrudge anyone who may cast a ballot on May 2, he says they may be disillusioned when comes to Indigenous nationhood. “If you’re a Canadian, you’re a Canadian, but don’t come back after the election and start talking about Anishinabe or Mohawk or Cree nationhood,” Alfred asserts. “Go all the way with it, and don’t be a hypocrite.”

For Alfred, First Nations individuals needs to choose between one or the other. “Or else,” he says, “the water will become very muddy. What are we then, when we are mixed up with everybody else?”

On the other side of the spectrum is Joseph Quesnel. He’s a Metis policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an independent, western Canadian based “think tank.”

“Someone can hold the belief that a community is important to one’s identity, but I also believe that you can have dual identities within Canada,” he says. “We can have provincial identities and we can also have national identities.”

According to Quesnel, First Nations need to stop perceiving the Canadian state as a ‘white man’s system.’ He says things would change if these attitudes were not present and might see greater political engagement by First Nations as a result. Quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Pericles, Quesnel says “just because you don’t take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean politics will take an interest in you.  You become part of someone else’s design for political life.” He adds that if First Nations people want a say in the decisions that affect them, they should go out and vote.

Research shows that in some areas First Nation voters could potentially hold incredible influence in federal ridings, in turn affecting the outcome of elections — if only they casted ballots.

“If you have a couple of reserves in your riding, that’s going to influence things,” says Quesnel. “But in those ridings, voter turnout is lowest because of those same reserves. I don’t see how [voting] could do any harm. It could only change the political strategies and [then] they can’t take Aboriginal people for granted,” he suggested.

Robert Genaille agrees. A Sto:lo educator from Peters First Nation in British Columbia, he feels the act of voting is important.

“If I weren’t to [vote], then it would be a lot harder for them to care about what I had to say,” remarks Genaille. “I think if Indigenous peoples were to get out and vote by mass we would be paid attention to.”

And while he is aware of the possible stigma attached to First Nations voters from those who would regard them as assimilated or ‘selling out’ when taking part in elections, he is ultimately not convinced by their arguments: “We explain to our youth that we can resist the system by not participating in it, but that doesn’t benefit us in any way. Instead, it allows us to be invisible.”

Try telling that to Winnipeg’s Donna Moose. A Cree mother/grandmother of five, she’s only voted once and questions whether casting a ballot makes any difference whatsoever: “I think topics the candidates talk about, debate, and promise have no impact or effect on my life.”

Growing up in the city’s north end, Moose says she received little education about Canadian politics. However, she says if she saw more Aboriginal candidates running, she might feel more inclined to participate.

Working to convince people like Moose to do just that is the Assembly of First Nations, which recently announced via its Facebook page that it will try to compel the main political parties to address First Nation issues at a proposed town hall later this month.

Clearly, it will require some effort to get those issues on the radar. With less than three weeks to go before the federal election, the party leaders and their candidates have so far been largely silent on First Nations issues. Meantime, a half-century after they gained the right to vote, it remains to be seen whether Aboriginal voters will ever become an actively mobilized force at the ballot box.

59 thoughts on “Should First Nations be part of Canadian elections? 50 years after getting the vote, debate rages on

  1. I never got that from gander’s post, him saying “we have the right to live as sovereigns.” In fact he thinks we don’t have any sovereignty, in fact he thinks we are anything but sovereign. “show me your “sovereignty”. where is it? is it in the indian act? is it in the band councils that mirror a dysfunctional european model of governance? is it in your yearly $5 treaty payments? is it in one of the numbered treaties? is it in your wardship status? is it in INAC? is it in the high rates of alcoholism, suicides, sexual abuse of children, wife beating? where is it?

    there needs to be MORE people like me who are not willing to be satisfied with your antiquated notions of “sovereignty” and who are not foolish enough to be blinded by an empty pride that wont let you see the truth. who see through the lies of both the colonial govt and people like YOU who think in 0ne-dimensional patterns.”

    The pattern that he was speaking of was that I feel sovereignty is not something we can argue over, it is strictly speaking de facto! But it sure as heck is not something given too us. As Gander pointed out. But that changes nothing, we can fall to the colonial ways that have said otherwise or we can believe it with no possible way that our position will ever change. The treaties as you have spoken of also enhance our position. Naturally any person or nation for that matter has the right to self-government, we are not living the lie but we are denied justice in this country, that’s the bottom line!

    Hopefully we can offer something in our discussions, as you yourself has attempted. And for that I accept your words.

    You have said lots, you mentioned that I have position myself against what I believed Alfred was saying. I said that I did not agree with his purist ideas. That is a reference to other postings and some things he mentions in his books. I called him out on that position, because I know that he himself is not as pure as he makes himself out to be. Yet he can attack people for being white, colonized, or anything he can think of once someone doesn’t believe in his theories. So really my comments have more depth to them and I would have to go back and write up a bigger piece. I don’t position myself against anyone unless they do it to me. Again, if our people are going to be divided over little minuscule things, we are not part of the solution but the problem.

    Ekosi

  2. Cmax wrote…”The pattern that he was speaking of was that I feel sovereignty is not something we can argue over, it is strictly speaking de facto! But it sure as heck is not something given too us. As Gander pointed out. But that changes nothing, we can fall to the colonial ways that have said otherwise or we can believe it with no possible way that our position will ever change. The treaties as you have spoken of also enhance our position. Naturally any person or nation for that matter has the right to self-government, we are not living the lie but we are denied justice in this country, that’s the bottom line! “…

    I totally agree in fact I believe the more we talk the clearer your position becomes indeed I believe ghanderman is saying the same thing .Albeit he is talking about the total lack of sovereignty in everyday and practical terms. Or to put it another way he is saying white people /settlers are denying F.N their sovereignty(you call it justice),i.e to live as they choose without settler interference or manipulation.He is also say – as does Alfred-that there are individual people who collaborate because they profit from the status quo(this is part and parcel of colonialism this it what makes it all so insidious).Whats wrong with calling em on it ? or pointing out the obvious disconnect between their word and deeds ?
    And I am sure Alfred is far from perfect, he is a human-being after all and besides I hardly think he believes that he is infallible.I have also read his books that said i still have to take issue with your interpretation of his works.
    May I dare suggest that perhaps you are misunderstanding Alfred kind of like Ghanderman,who I will admit has missed a few points you made ,or at least misunderstood.That said he as also made many valid points.
    Have you read Alfred’s Peace,Power,Righteousness Published by Oxford.It is hardly the work of a purist , or a guy who believes he is judge, jury and executioner .
    Peace my friend

  3. As you say “why not call em out,” which is something I have graciously done many times over. Maybe its the responses I see that such a message conveys that is the problem. It becomes a free for all, railing and calling people hypocrites, white, colonized and then thinking its doing good. It’s careless verbiage if you ask me! Its like any argument, if it makes things worse, we have to reconsider. Unity is by far a more noble quest, which again nobility, civility, is diametrically opposed to rantings and raving of a mad man. It’s not false pride either but righteousness which lifts any nation. In other words there are two views that are being expressed. Our desire is the same, to move beyond our condition. But anger, frustration, isolation, these are only ends in them self, whereas to strive for peace, righteousness, and unity, these are lasting and edifying pursuits. In my traditional community, we had two chiefs, a war chief and a civil chief. War has its place but our people needed to reside in times of peace, and therefore the civil chief always meant more to a people. War should never be the loudest message, if we want what is best for our people. I’ll leave it at that for now.

  4. You have no part in Canadians life, you have your own. Why are you allowed things we aren’t? what?! “You guys were here first?” NO! ADAM AND EVE WERE!

  5. Not interested “IN HELPING” vote in another government that still oppress’s our people today….. What the hell man? poverty, homelessness, addictions, child apprehensions, over population in prisons, poor education, still fighting to protect our lands….. Does not matter who gets in we will still be treated like shit!!!! Why vote for the oppressor? That is just not logical……

  6. Our people have no place in voting for any government and that is all 3 levels of government!
    We are a sovereign people and we should not have to lower ourselves to vote in a system that still continues to marginalize and oppress our people by stealing our land and exploiting resources……

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