Canada Votes 2015

To vote or not: the issue facing Indigenous people

Communities are divided over whether electoral participation helps influence the settler state or diverts energy from sovereignty
Photo: Adam Kahtava

For Indigenous people in Canada, the election is an issue that divides communities. On the one hand, participation is seen as a way to influence the settler state and support allies. On the other, the election is viewed as illegitimate and distracting, with energy better directed into strengthening the sovereignty of First Peoples.

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Across Turtle Island is a complex and diverse history with respect to voting. It should be no surprise that Indigenous peoples have divergent views on federal politics, as they have different cultures, governance systems, traditional laws, and historical relationships to the Crown, British and French settling governments, and Canada.

Here I’ve tried to break down the arguments I’ve heard from Indigenous people against and for voting, in an attempt to highlight the complicated colonial history of hundreds of years across the 634 federally recognized governments of this land.

Arguments for refusing colonial elections

Those against voting argue that more important than changing foreign government structures is the need to prioritize and re-legitimize Indigenous systems of governance.

Our people are busy decolonizing and moving on towards the next step: re-Indigenizing our traditional systems and legal structures, and trying to piece together our incredibly complex ways post-genocide. Indigenous people need to focus on building self-determination and sovereignty before worrying about the colonial settler state.

For many, elbows deep in helping their communities, a ballot is a ludicrous way to address what has happened.

There is no trust in the system as it stands. The federal election has not responded to Indigenous peoples’ needs, and the Indian Act does not even properly reflect this modern thing called "democracy."

Leaders elected under the Indian Act are not responsible to the constituents in their communities. Instead, they are legally obliged to enact and enforce the colonial rules and agenda of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Despite changes made by Harper to supposedly make reservation governments more accountable to those they govern, this central issue has not changed.

Democracy is skewed and broken for many First Nations. Why would people want to participate in something they do not see working in their home nations?

Indigenous people who have education, talent and leadership skills are otherwise preoccupied, focusing their energy on real changes on the ground. For many, elbows deep in helping their communities, a ballot is a ludicrous way to address what has happened.

Another view is that the settler government is not our problem to fix; it is up to settlers and those involved in that system to clean up their own mess. Pamela Palmater expressed this point in her recent Taking Back Kanada lecture tour.

Then there are people who have tried once or twice in their lifetimes to engage with provincial or electoral politics, and it seemed not to matter at all, as every colonial government in power has maintained the agenda of implementing capitalism and displacing Indigenous peoples from their lands in order to grab and exploit natural resources.

That said, many Indigenous people, including those who share significant parts of this critique, do vote.

The case for trying to improve a bad system

The case for voting in provincial and federal elections is no less complex.

The Harper government has passed 14 bills that erode Aboriginal rights and title.

There are Indigenous people who proudly identify as Canadian, and are thus more inclined to vote. It’s important to note that prior to 1960 Indigenous people could only vote in federal elections if they gave up their treaty rights and Indian status. To obtain standard human rights and get out from underneath the Indian Act system, some Indigenous people fought in World War II or were disenfranchised from their own First Nations.

Some were adopted and raised in Canadian families, and some choose to not identify as Aboriginal at all. There are those with Indigenous ancestry who do not come from a federally recognized nation — such as the recently enfranchised Métis and Innu — and who needed to feel part of a system somewhere. For these groups, voting is a part of belonging and partaking in a system they can influence.

There are those people who will vote this year in order to build bridges and support allies with overlapping issues. They don’t mind lending their support to the election in order to band together on shared issues.

Some people reside in communities where settler governments have been acknowledged as representatives of the state on a nation-to-nation basis. There are also those rare federal politicians who have been brought in under the wing of local First Nations and given responsibilities and understanding of the complex histories, rights and needs of local communities.

One example is Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, who is known for participating in feasts, gatherings and ceremonies in the many far-flung communities of his vast riding. The Indigenous people of this district have let him know what his responsibilities are and expressed the importance of being a representative of federal and local interests.

The women in my family said they would not tell anyone their vote.

This relationship encourages a higher percentage of First Nations to vote than average. In an area that is 40 to 50 per cent Indigenous, this participation is largely responsible for getting Cullen into government, and in return the local people believe he is responsible to them in a traditional reciprocal relationship.

There are those who identify more as urban Natives and unashamedly engage in Canadian politics. Seventy per cent of Indigenous people are located in urban settings, and many of these people get involved in local, provincial and national politics because that is what is closest to them in their everyday lives.

There are also new voters, those who have never cast a ballot before, but have made exceptions for this election. The Harper government has passed 14 bills that erode Aboriginal rights and title and has been a daunting proponent of colonization of all First Nations, essentially implementing the White Paper of 1969 that even Trudeau and Chrétien backed away from after major Indigenous opposition. Many Indigenous people will vote for the next opponent at the bargaining table as a strategic act of battle. It’s almost an art of war approach.

Their prerogative

Whatever individual Indigenous people decide to do on election day is their prerogative.

Serious efforts have been invested in the Indigenous vote this year, by Indigenous youth with the Rock the Aboriginal Vote campaign, the Assembly of First Nations, and local activists setting up information areas on reserves. As well, the greatest number of Indigenous candidates seen in a Canadian federal election may change the tides of the historically low voter turnout of Indigenous people.

Indigenous people fought and are still fighting for their rights and the rights of all others in every way possible.

My family was always supportive of voting. I was told it counted, at least in the northwestern B.C. riding where my families’ territories lie. The women in my family said they would not tell anyone their vote, even their spouses or family members, as it was a personal and private decision.

I carry this attitude when asking people, especially Native people, if they voted.

If the youth show up at the polls, then they have used their ballot and tried to make a difference. If the majority of all adults in the Indigenous population of 1.4 million show up, then they have decided to use their colonial-given right to vote, and that is okay. If the majority of the reservations under the Indian Act choose not to vote in their territories, that is okay too, as they are working on getting their basic needs addressed and reinvigorating traditional ways of being.

As it stands now, and as Palmater expressed, emphasis should be put on having the other approximately 33 million people in Canada make it their priority to change the system, to achieve the changes needed across the country for all peoples.

Indigenous people fought and are still fighting for their rights and the rights of all others in every way possible. It’s time to start focusing our gaze towards current allies, settlers and newcomers, whose numbers combined outweigh the Indigenous vote, as they can now fight for us and our livelihoods like we have done for them for hundreds of years.

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