Respect my right to not vote

For Indigenous Peoples, voting in a colonial system comes at a cost to our sovereignty
Photo: A stop sign in Mohawk and English in Kanehsatà:ke. Photo by Maxim Off
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In 1990, Kanehsatà:ke land defenders barricaded a secondary dirt road to stop the expansion of Oka’s nine-hole golf course on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka homeland. It began the “78-day siege” of Kanehsatà:ke, including Kahnawake.

There were countless times during our daily press conferences where I stated that the Kanien’kehá:ka are not Canadian citizens and that we never accepted imposed citizenship. We never surrendered our own citizenship under Kaianera’kó:wa, the Great Law of Peace. A shocked media and public did not know how to react. Meanwhile, racists in Quebec were chanting for us to go “back to the woods” and go back home!

Although other Indigenous Peoples do not have the same belief system as the Rotinonhseshá:ka — people of the longhouse — there are many who do not vote either. They too assert that they never surrendered their own systems of government and citizenship. In spite of the fact that Indigenous Peoples have for the last six decades been given the “right” to vote, most don’t. Voting is controversial and mired in confusion regarding the implications and cost to our sovereignty.

Like so many generations before us, we remain in survival mode, meaning our existence is dependent upon our resistance.

Our vote really means very little other than supporting certain parties’ political agendas. I must point out here that we are still under the Indian Act, and while on paper we have access to services, our rights to our lands are suppressed by Canada’s assumed fiduciary “responsibility,” which controls every aspect of our lives. In spite of the fact that the United Nations has officially condemned the racist archaic Doctrines of Superiority, such as the Doctrine of Discovery, Canada still uses it in a heavy-handed and coercive way. Smothering our rights, hiding the truth from its citizens with talk about how much they “spend” on Indigenous Peoples — all to justify the theft of Indigenous homelands.

The 1990 Kanehsatà:ke siege was a rallying cry for Indigenous Peoples across Canada. As a result, a new form of Indigenous resistance was born, and efforts to defend Indigenous sovereignty were given a second breath. Like so many generations before us, we remain in survival mode, meaning our existence is dependent upon our resistance.

Assimilation, Canada’s real national religion, in which human rights are equated with economics, has meant the destruction and decay of Indigenous Peoples’ identities and rights to self-determination. The continued contamination of the environment on Indigenous Peoples’ lands is indeed environmental racism. Canada’s purchase of a pipeline, the tar sands, Kanehsatà:ke’s huge toxic waste dump from garbage, sewage and construction materials from Montreal’s old infrastructure are good examples of a society that treats Indigenous Peoples as dispensable.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights, health and well-being have, for several centuries now, been sacrificed for the benefit of Canada’s economy and corporate interests.

Canada’s political leaders posture during their debates and feign concern over the lack of potable water, and the heinous crimes committed against Indigenous children whose bodies are being discovered in former residential schools. It is just a public spectacle. Time has shown we don’t matter to society unless there is money to be had, unless we’re in crisis. But the truth is, we have been in crisis for centuries. We’ve been oppressed, culturally shamed and bereft of the essence of our identity because of the loss of our languages, because of the loss of our lands and access to them.

Today we are asked to vote in a system of governance that has committed genocide against our ancestors, our children, our peoples.

Canada has invented a new form of oppression and land dispossession called “rights and recognition.” Really, it’s the same old racist agenda insidiously disguised in self-government and coercive financial agreements. It’s all a matter of semantics and, as always, a matter of reading between the lines.

I remember Elders telling us not to vote or it would mean losing our rights to our lands, our inherent rights to self-determination. They knew that participation in colonial election systems was a threat to our sovereignty; we would essentially be turning our backs on our own laws. As the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau said in regards to his White Paper, when you no longer speak your language or practice your culture, you have become assimilated. This remains the mantra of provincial and federal colonial governments. Sounds outrageous, but it’s true.

Indigenous laws talk about responsibilities and obligations to future generations. That we all have to respect, protect, and maintain peace and compassion for all living things, from the waters, fish, plants, trees, and birds to the skies, with all the natural life forces we depend upon to survive.

Today we are asked to vote in a system of governance that has committed genocide against our ancestors, our children, our peoples. A society that has been shown evidence of the genocide committed in their name against Indigenous Peoples but has responded with apathy. A society that insists on maintaining the dominant colonial narrative that in essence is defined by a racist “might is right” attitude.

In spite of the evidence of colonialism’s depravity documented in reports such as those by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), there has been no real change. We hold our pain and trauma close to the chest as we wait for the next round of Indigenous children’s bodies discovered in unmarked graves, spread across the sites of former residential schools.

Politicians cry crocodile tears, while they cut and paste from old political campaigns for their “Indigenous platforms.” Right-wing politicians appeasing their base claim that “some good came of the residential schools” and deny it was genocide. The underlying message is that economics comes before anything else, and we can worry about the historical legacy later. This is the pervasive problem; it’s another generation’s duty to solve this. In my lifetime, history has shown that a healthy Canada, with its demands for economic stability, requires the continued oppression of Indigenous Peoples and land dispossession without pause.

A government that does not respect my right to exist is not a government I endorse, nor does it represent my rights and interests.

And so, I cannot bring myself to vote in a system that knew of the crimes being committed in residential schools and did nothing. A system whereby a prime minister, Stephen Harper, made a coercive agreement that his government would apologize for the residential school system on the condition there would be no criminal prosecution against those who committed crimes against Indigenous children and their families.

Voting would not mean that Indigenous Peoples would be part of any changes where we have control over our own destiny. It is quite the opposite, as Canada’s heavy fist comes down upon Indigenous land defenders like the Tiny House Warriors and all Indigenous Peoples defying Canada’s oppression, all for the sake of economic greed propelled by fear mongering.

So here’s the solution: real nation-to-nation relationships, with land returned by the thieves who stole it: Canada and third parties. This consequently means a moratorium on all development. The intent of Kaswéntha — the Two Row Wampum — is our lands, our culture, our languages, our identity protected from colonial laws. This includes protection for the environment, the waters and all our relations, giving children, youth and future generations a fighting chance against climate change. This is what the spirit of Indigenous laws entails and whose foundation is embedded in peace, compassion and justice.

In practice, “reconciliation” is an empty platitude that obscures coercive assimilation laws. Justice in Canada means sending in brutish policing authorities to violently defend corporate interests. Like the wild west of history, Canada’s democracy is filled with corruption and hired guns, deceitfully hiding behind nice words but keeping a knife behind its back. We are still the “Indian Problem” that John A. MacDonald tried to eliminate.

As an advocate for Indigenous human rights for three decades, I can honestly say that change has been miniscule. Indigenous Peoples are still struggling against Canada’s racist doctrines, coupled with centuries of oppression. We are still fighting the erasure of our existence, not only in history but today. We’ve been trying to emphasize that we are more than statistics. We are human beings and the same fire of resistance of our ancestors burns in our veins.

For me, voting in any colonial process could only happen under duress. A government that does not respect my right to exist is not a government I endorse, nor does it represent my rights and interests. If we actually had a system that respected the human rights and inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples, things might be different.

I want to stress that this is not meant to chastise those who do vote or are running in federal elections. I understand that people want to make a difference, to fight the huge colonial machine with its endless resources to keep us oppressed.

Today Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with Canada is defined by the colonizers. It is time that peace, courage and compassion define our relationship. The possibility of peaceful coexistence does not rest in a vote in a system that suppresses our human rights. Embracing change, which requires patience, courage and respectful dialogue; teaching Canada’s genocidal colonial history; and shifting to sustainable ways of living can give the next generations a fighting chance to survive climate change.

If I knew my vote would help this generation and the future, perhaps I would change my mind. Until then, I will watch and observe, advocate, treasure my Kanien’kehá:ka citizenship and demand that my right to not vote be respected as well.

Skén:nen — wishing you peace

Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel

Kanehsatà:ke, Indigenous human rights and environmental advocate

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