Canada is a diverse nation; and there are many reasons for not voting. This insightful article looks at one demographic.
Nothing lost when indigenous people vote
In 1960, when former prime minister John Diefenbaker successfully restored the right to vote for First Nations people, he earned the nickname “the man who made us people again” by elders in my northern reserve. That’s why it shocks me, over a half-century later, to still occasionally hear some of our leaders encouraging our people not to vote.
A few have argued for First Nations people to vote is for us to buy into the colonial, racist system that has done us so much harm over the years and removed us from our claims of sovereignty. Simultaneously, they argue the Canadian Constitution protects our rights as First Nations people.
I don’t buy into this confused response because, to me, you can’t denounce the obligations of citizenship without first denouncing the benefits.
My 14-year-old daughter responded to the “Why should First Nations people vote?” question in a straightforward manner. To her, it is about who makes decisions that affect her. “If you want to have no control over the decisions that affect your life, then don’t vote.” To her, conceding control is the furthest thing from sovereignty.
In the Oct. 19 election, there are 45 indigenous candidates running for the federal parties who, like all other candidates, make choices in terms of whom they are going to communicate with. They ask themselves, “Should I door-knock in community A with a population of 1,000 and a voter turnout of 80 per cent or visit community B with 1,000 people and a 40 per cent voter turnout?”
If door-knocking and voter identification are the bread and butter of politics, then the choice to visit community A is easy, as they’ll encounter an engaged voter at almost every door. And, from the perspective of a voter, the community will have a significant advantage, as their concerns will be heard over and over again by candidates.
When my 11-year-old son was asked the same question, his answer was strikingly different than his sister’s. He said we all need to vote because, “It’s part of being treaty.” He’s not far off from the views of his grandfather who, when asked one day why he was wearing a military jacket, said: “I do it to acknowledge and honour those aboriginal people who put their lives on the line to help the British monarchy, as a symbol of the sacred treaty relationship between the Crown and First Nations.”
Sure, there are probably other less important reasons why so many young people have and continue to respond to the call, across so many conflicts, but I believe the base is to honour the treaties. Even when the monarch, according to the late Jacob Bignell, told indigenous soldiers the First World War was not their war and they could be excused from participating, aboriginal soldiers kept their oath.
We need to continue that commitment.
Through the generations, we’ve had many First Nations veterans who have served and fought and died for Canada and for our collective rights, including the right to vote. In my father’s view and mine, we fully plan to honour this sacrifice, as an important part of defending the treaties the Crown and First Nations came together to make.
Political scientist Kiera Ladner, who holds the Canada Research Chair in indigenous politics and governance, says voting can be an expression of your nationhood, not contrition. If we as First Nations are “nations within,” then voting in a federal, provincial or band election would not dissolve your citizenship but enhance it. If someone gave you the opportunity to vote in the upcoming U.S. election, would you vote? Most of us would say, “Yes, what happens in the U.S. has a great influence on me. I won’t stop being Canadian, so why not?”
Also worth noting is if a person has ever voted in a First Nations band election, they have already voted in a Canadian system. In fact, it would be rare to find an individual who felt less Cree or less Ojibwa by voting for their chief and council.
The bottom line in the ground game of politics is this: First Nations people have tremendous power as the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population. It’s time for mainstream parties to woo our people as voters, candidates and as part of their long-range plan. Equally, now’s the time for First Nations voters to fully exercise the right restored to them some 75 years ago… or risk becoming irrelevant on the political landscape.
James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.
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