To Vote or Not to Vote – A Question of Sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples

The issue of whether or not to vote in the fast-approaching federal election has been a hot topic in the last few weeks. There are Indigenous peoples on both sides of the argument and sometimes the debate can get pretty heated. Taking into account the vibrant diversity within our Indigenous Nations, a wide variety of opinions is to be expected. One thing is for certain, we all seem to want better for our  families, communities and Nations – the only difference is how we go about achieving it. Ways of Thinking: I am one of those academics, lawyers, volunteers, activists, mothers, and bloggers that likes to think about these issues on multiple levels – from legal, political, social, historical, philosophical and practical mindsets. This way of thinking and considering issues comes from my Indigeneity – my Mi’kmaq way of seeing, contemplating and navigating this world. I have often had problems giving legal opinions that did not include a consideration of political and social considerations, or looking at a policy issue without looking deeper at the philosophical ideology from which it stems. I have often found that part of the problem in considering issues which impact our peoples is that the decision-makers look at it from a one-dimensional viewpoint. So, addressing chronic poverty in First Nations is seen as a matter of economics – it costs too much up front to deal with, ignoring that investments now have far bigger pay-offs later. On top of that kind of limited thinking, federal and provincial politicians are still saddled with their very ethnocentric, westernized ways of seeing the world and our place within it. The overall goal of assimilation and paternalism seems to cut across political parties and be a common theme in federal and provincial policies and laws relating to our people. So, how does all of this relate to voting? I think the underlying ideology from which you consider the issue affects the factors that are considered relevant in deciding whether or not to vote. I am also trying to say that I appreciate all opinions and ideas and learn a great deal from the diverse Indigenous world views shared with me on a regular basis. Since this might be a little too “heavy” for some readers and out of consideration for my younger followers who might “unfollow” me if I get too boring, I’ll get straight to the issue – I am against voting in federal and provincial elections. However, I am not against Aboriginal people exercising their right to vote. How are these two positions compatible? Let me try to explain… The Right to Vote: Aboriginal peoples have the right to vote in Canada. Canada considers Aboriginal peoples in Canada to be Canadian citizens and as such have a right to vote. “Indians” achieved the right to vote in 1960 when those anachronistic provisions of Canadian laws were repealed. Given that the Canadian system, with all of its laws, policies and governing structures were imposed on Aboriginal people against their will, I think having the right to vote is the LEAST Canada can do. So, given Canada’s assumption of sovereignty in our territories, I clearly believe that Aboriginal people should have the right to vote – I am just not advocating that they do. Some of you might be saying “How does that make any sense”? Like I said, since Canada imposed their systems on us, then the option of being a citizen with a right to vote is the least that Canada can do for Aboriginal peoples. Some feel that we are “dual citizens” – i.e., citizens of our Indigenous Nations and (for some) citizens of Canada. Therefore, there is an argument to be made that those who vote do not prejudice their real citizenship in their Nations because of this duality. While there is some merit to this argument, I think the issue of sovereignty is a bit more complex. We must keep in mind that the right to vote is directly associated with being a Canadian citizen. Being a Canadian citizen has been historically tied to having to give up one’s Indigeneity, language, culture, laws, governance, ways of being and adopt Canadian ways of life. Canada has a long history of promoting its perceived cultural superiority that this ideology found its way into Canadian laws, policies and decision-making. The Indian Act used to require that anyone who wanted to vote had to give up their Indian status and that of their wife and children. This meant forgoing all connections to the land and dispensing with Treaty rights. Even today, government laws and policies are all geared toward assimilation and extinguishment – not the protection of Indigenous Nations. It is no suprise then that the centuries old association of being Canadian (and the right to vote) with the loss of our identity, culture and rights is one that looms large in many of our minds and why many refuse to vote. Dual Citizenship: Let’s assume for argument sake that we are technically dual citizens – citizens of both Canada and our own Indigenous Nation. Just because we have it doesn’t mean we should use it – especially if it won’t give us what we want. Does having a couple of Aboriginal MPs help strengthen our sovereignty or Nation-building efforts? Does it fundamentally shift the relationship between our treaty partners? Does it fulfill and enrich our sense of being Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Cree or Maliseet? I would argue it does not. It gives us (if we are “successful” in the vote) Aboriginal MPs. What does that do? We had Elijah Harper, who thankfully stopped Meech Lake, but those laws have since been changed. We could not do that again. The colonizers quickly learn from their mistakes and change laws,jury pools or even election ridings to suit their own interests – never ours. That is why we see so few of us on juries and why we are on the receiving end of the cruel justice. What we would end up with even if we did get a few more Aboriginal MPs, is more people who would be forced to tow the party line. I no more want an Aboriginal Minister of Indian Affairs imposing the Indian Act on me and my family than I would a non-Aboriginal one. Nor am I comforted by having an Aboriginal Fisheries officer arrest my family for fishing or prosecuting my family for hunting. In my eyes, that is far worse than when a non-Aboriginal person oppresses our people because we have an inherent obligation to stand up for our people – something for which our ancestors felt was worth giving up their lives – if necessary. I am also concerned about the equality of the “duality” of citizenship – is there a point where the more dominant form of citizenship, i.e., the “Canadian” one, overcomes our traditional citizenship? By voting as Canadians, while our Indigenous rights, cultures, languages and lands slip away, is there some point where the Flanagans and Harpers of the world pronounce that we are finally assimilated? If we don’t act to recognize, assert, protect and act on our sovereignty and indigeneity – NO ONE ELSE WILL. No one act of sovereignty will make a difference – it is our collective mindset, teachings and actions that will bring about the change we want. Not voting is one of many, many actions we need to take to assert our sovereignty Sovereignty: In simple terms, sovereignty means that our Indigenous Nations (Mi’kmaq, Cree, Maliseet, etc) have the right to be self-determining and free from interference or control by another Nation – like Canada not just because they were “here first” – although this is a pretty compelling argument even in Western legal traditions. It is far more than our occupation of this land since time immemorial, it is, as the Supreme Court of Canada put it: “In my view, the doctrine of aboriginal rights exists, and is recognized and affirmed by s. 35(1), because of one simple fact: when Europeans arrived in North America, aboriginal peoples were already here, living in communities on the land, and participating in distinctive cultures, as they had done for centuries.  It is this fact, and this fact above all others, which separates aboriginal peoples from all other minority groups in Canadian society and which mandates their special legal, and now constitutional, status.” (emphasis added) We were (and are) sovereign peoples with our own lands, histories and cultures, but also our own laws, trading systems and networks and governing systems. None of this was replaced or nullified on Canada’s assumption of sovereignty. This is one of the reasons why our inherent right to be self-determining has been protected in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Sovereignty can never be given – it is something that is asserted and that may or may not then be recognized by others. Anyone who asks Canada to recognize our sovereignty is not acting sovereign. When communities and Nations take a stand and act on their sovereignty by fishing, hunting, enacting our own laws, living by our own cultures and traditions, pr by preserving and promoting our languages – that is real sovereignty. Kahnawake knows what it is like to act on their sovereignty – so does Esgenoopetitj, Six Nations and many others. It Makes No Sense to Vote: So, if that is the case and we are sovereign Nations with our inherent right to be self-governing recognized as protected, then why would we vote in another sovereign Nation’s election process? If you look at it in reverse, would you want Canadians to vote in OUR elections and governing processes? Of course not – even saying it sounds ridiculous. I think we have suffered enough by Canadian control over our affairs, we don’t need any more micro-managers in our communities. If you look at it from a treaty perspective, we signed treaties as sovereign Nations, not as the wards or subjects of the Crown. If this were the case, there’d be no treaties as Nations never sign treaties except with other Nations. This is one of the very fundamental aspects of who we are as Nations that makes us different from those who have immigrated to Canada. We owe it to our treaty ancestors to live our sovereignty everyday so that our future generations enjoy the same freedom to be and live Indigenous. What are We Voting For? So, let’s say that none of this has even slightly given you pause for thought. When we do vote, what are we voting for? We are voting for political parties who have been responsible for: – physical and sexual abuse, deaths, cruelty and torture & loss of language and culture in residential schools; – wanting to completely eliminate “Indians” through scalping bounties, small pox blankets, White Paper, Indian Act, exclusion of our women and children from our communities through status; – chronic under-funding and caps on our essential social services like water, housing, health and education; -over-representation of our men and women in prisons, starlight tours, deaths in police custody; – hundreds and hundreds of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls and even more subjected to violence and sexual exploitation; and – the theft of our precious children during the 60’s scoop and now many more through Child Welfare Agencies. This is just to name a few. So, what then are we voting for when we vote for one party or another? We are voting for more of the same but hoping for something different. What we are voting for is who will be our next Indian agent. We are voting for the next Minister of Indian Affairs who will manage and control us through the Indian Act and keep us so pre-occupied with such extreme poverty than we are too sick, uneducated, depressed or dead to rise up and re-assert our sovereignty. Our expectations are managed so that we will chase the small hope that maybe this time will be different and maybe we will get a few hundred more dollars for a program or project. We deserve better than this and we are responsible to our Nations not to be complicit in this. Our Veterans: I have heard many raise the issue of our Aboriginal war veterans in this debate. I have a great deal of respect for those who fought to protect their territories as they have done since time immemorial. As individuals, I am sure they all had their own reasons for enlisting in WWI and WWII and other wars. That being said, I don’t like when people make the over-generalisation that our veterans were fighting for the right to vote. That may be true of some war vets, but not all. Indians did not get the right to vote until 1960 – decades after WWI and II. My father was a WWII war veteran who came back home disabled, with no land or compensation and no educational opportunities. He did not fight in Canada’s war for the right to vote in Canada’s governing system, he fought as an ally of Britain with whom our Nation, the Mi’kmaq Nation, had signed various treaties. In our treaties, we agreed to be allies and protect our territories. It was his hope that by living up to his obligations under the treaties, the Crown would live up to its obligations. There are many war veterans who felt the same way. Political Engagement vs. Apathy?: Nothing makes me more upset than when I hear others categorize our First Nations who refuse to vote in federal or provincial elections as being apathetic or uninterested in political engagement. The majority of us may not vote in federal or provincial elections, but did you ever look at our participation rates for elections, land, treaty and other votes in our Nations? The participation rates are unbelievably high and put Canadian voter participation rates to absolute shame. Our people are engaged at the grass roots level as activists, volunteers and professionals and care very much about our governing systems – both traditional and band governance. The issue is NOT voter apathy or political disengagement, it is about who we feel will best advocate for tour Nations and communities and (with exceptions) right now it is our own leaders (traditional and band) that give us that best hope – not Canadian politicians. The AFN has said that of the 308 federal election ridings, less than 60 could be impacted by Aboriginal peoples. That presumes, of course, exceptionally high voter participation and also presumes that once elected, their favoured MPs will be able to make the fundamental changes required to address our long outstanding issues. I think those are unrealistic expectations if we go by:  past practice, the empty election platforms; and the arrogant lack of attention to Aboriginal issues by most of the parties. That’s just my opinion. I honestly enjoy engaging in the debate and hearing the opinions and arguments of others that maybe I have not yet considered. I am encouraged that so many of us care about our sovereignty enough to talk about how important it is – even if we differ on which path we should take to get there. Here are some recent radio interviews I have done on the subject:

All this being said, I have heard and considered all the arguments for why we should vote and they are very good arguments. I also see the strategy in voting not “for” someone, but to rise up against a dictatorial regime. So, voting then becomes less of a civic engagement exercise in Canadian governance and more of a strategic political tactic to guard against further intrusion into our Nations. These are all good points. Thank you all for sharing and let’s keep talking.


  1. Thanks for sharing Pam. All intriguing thoughts. I think that if a person's decision to not vote is one well thought out, then that is equally great as those who choose to vote. If it is not well thought out and simply due to someone not wanting to be bothered by it, then it is not a good nor valid rationale.

    A decision not to vote based on thought is a political statement in and of itself. A decision not to vote because a certain tv show is on or because one "doesn't feel like getting out" is not a very good exercise of our ability to raise our political voice.

    I am not suggesting our people do not have good reasons to abstain their vote, I just hope that ANYone in the geogrpahy of Canada who has the opportunity to make a viable political statement does so (whether that be voting for a specific party or not voting for a political reason).

    Far too often I hear and see people (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike) not vote and their reasons make me sigh.

    There were even a lot of Canadians who got involved in the US politics (spreading awareness) even though they could not vote because they were not citizens of that sovereign nation. Why did they do that? Because the choice of president by the American people greatly affects daily life in Canada.

    In the same vein, even if all our nations were healthy and strong, the choice of Prime Minister still has a profound effect on our daily lives (personal, social, economic, etc.).

  2. I agree with you. First and foremost, as a Haudenosaunee woman, I believe in the sovereignty of my Nations and therefore do not feel like voting in a process that continues to oppress my people and refuse our land claims. That being said, as my Choctaw brother pointed out to me this evening, if the settlers want to give us a vote in their settler government then we should exercise that bit of power and vote for the party which promises the least oppression. However, I still find the act distasteful and feel that voting is for collaborators and I will not vote as an insurgent, indigenous citizen of Turtle Island.

Comments are closed.