Election periods can raise tensions in any groups of people, however productive or divisive in nature they may be.
As a Mohawk-European woman studying Planning at the University of Waterloo, I want to offer Imprint readers a better understanding of how Indigenous people experience those tensions within our nations and within ourselves.
When you think of an Indigenous voter, you may not have an idea of what name would have that precious ‘X’ beside their ballot.
The truth is, there is no one identity for an ‘Indigenous voter,’ and the ‘Indigenous vote’ (as you may hear election strategists refer to it) is a rather disingenuous way to describe the voting habits of an incredibly diverse population.
It is comparable to saying ‘the student vote,’ as if you and all of your friends on campus have the same election policies on your priority list when you go to the ballot box… It isn’t realistic.
In fact, you should know that there are many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit folks who do not vote at all.
It is important to recognize that the diversity of Indigenous voters exists alongside the diversity of Indigenous non-voters, and to recognize this, Canadian history must be understood.
It is important to first remember that voting rights were not always accessible to Indigenous people.
It is part of a large and messy history of racism that I do not want to gloss over, but for the sake of this article the gist is this: Status First Nations could not vote in federal elections until 1960.
Prior to this, they could only vote if they were perceived as ‘white enough,’ for which they would lose their status, thus becoming enfranchised in Canadian society and able to vote.
In 1950, Inuit technically gained the right to vote, however, it was completely inaccessible to the vast majority of Inuit who lived in remote locations.
In fact, 1962 is usually cited as the year Inuit gained the vote, considering that was the year when ballot stations finally popped up in many of those communities.
Métis have had the right to vote in federal elections throughout this time.
So, if it took so long for Indigenous peoples to get the vote, why do some not vote? It’s a fair thing to wonder – especially if you grew up in the Canadian school system where you were taught to be proud of the vote after it was fought for and defended.
Why is it different for Indigenous people, and what does it mean?
Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, and activist, defends her opinion on not voting.
In an article from 2015, she claims “…the whole point of sovereignty is [that] Indigenous nations must assert, live, and defend our sovereignty, jurisdiction, and right of self-determination – [rather than] vote for federal politicians to do that for us.”
She goes further to say, “I have never looked at the issue of voting as right or wrong – it’s just that we all have different views about how to best advocate for our people.
I don’t think we should vote – others think we should.”
For those Indigenous folks who do participate in the election, voting is seen as an opportunity for a lifeline.
According to a study using data from four elections between 2006 and 2015, high voter turnout in Indigenous communities corresponds with a higher proportion of Indigenous candidates.
With more Indigenous candidates in the federal government, there are often more Indigenous issues raised and heard.
Some people would describe this as an attempt at ‘Indigenizing’ the space or working towards reconciliation.
Both outlooks are compelling in their own ways.
As a woman who is both Indigenous and white, I walk the line between two clashing identities. I have been old enough to vote in one federal election before, and I took part in strategic voting to welcome anyone other than Stephen Harper.
Now I am more in-tune with my Indigineity, and the concept of voting has become more complex to navigate.
I often question the relationship between Haudenosaunee sovereignty and participating in colonial Canadian processes, and my identity only makes it that much more confusing and intense. (And then there’s the question of who I would vote for on top of that.)
Ultimately, the history of the ‘Indigenous vote’ is complex.
If you see an Indigenous person saying they want to vote, empower them. If you see an Indigenous person saying they want to abstain, empower them just as much.
And to my fellow Indigenous people out there: study your nation’s perspective on sovereignty and how to best defend it with a good mind, then put in whatever work is required, whether you feel it is voting or otherwise.
You are supported.