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.