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Indigenous People Debate Whether Voting in the Canadian Election Undermines First Nations' Sovereignty

There are reasons for not voting that go back centuries, long before "Anybody but Harper" existed.

by Jane Gerster
Oct 15 2015, 3:06pm

Idle No More is a protest movement dedicated to forcing the Canadian government to account for its actions in relation to First Nations. Photo via Flickr user The Indignants

Kristy Provost watched from her home near Nampa, Alberta last May as the provincial votes were tallied and the NDP swept to a historic win. At one point, as the count ticked upward and the election was not yet secure, she noticed the candidate in her riding was—just for a moment—winning by a single vote. She leaned in and snapped a picture to fire off to her brother.

"Look," she typed out. "Your one vote could have mattered."

Provost, who is a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, has voted every election since she was 18, but not everyone in her family does. She's questioned them on it, engaged them in conversation about why they don't vote, all the while trying to sway them to vote.

The divide in Provost's family—those who vote versus those who don't—is being seen now on a national scale as Indigenous people debate whether or not to cast a ballot in the upcoming federal election, a choice that could have major implications for a federal election that is expected to be a close one.

Provost supports voting because "when you're looking at whether or not a riding is going NDP or Conservative, that's big." Others say they won't.

"Our greatest source of power has always been and always will be in our people," wrote Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq woman from Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, in a post on her website Indigenous Nationhood addressing some of the pro-vote rationale swirling around the debate.

"The most exciting and transformative times in our recent history have not been tied to voting in federal elections, but were linked to our very public collective actions against Canadian processes."

Canada is actively working to undermine the collective rights of First Nations, says Russ Diabo, a Kahnawake Mohawk who wrote earlier this year about voting as "an exercise of self-termination."

It's not a question of Conservatives versus Liberals versus NDP, says Diabo, "change is going to have to come from outside the system, not within the system."

There have been no shortages of editorials this summer urging Indigenous people to rock the vote. But for many, the reasons for voting—or not voting—go back centuries and extend far beyond the "Anyone but Harper" mantra.

"We're supposed to have parallel systems," Diabo told VICE. That was the point of the Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas) in 1613. The Two Row Wampum belt has two rows of purple beads on a background of white, one row for the ship and the Europeans it carried and the other for the canoe and the First Nations who steer it. It was meant to be a show of respect, not just a sign of peace but also an agreement to not interfere with each other's governance and way of life.

Four centuries later and Indigenous people are still reeling from the effects of continuing Canadian interference, from assimilative tactics including the residential school system to a federal government taking aim at treaties through the courts.

Diabo, in particular, resists voting now because of what he describes as the government's attempt to "change our status from being peoples to being minorities."

A rally in support of "justice for Indigenous women," one of the many issues successive federal governments have failed to act on. Photo via Flickr user Neal Jennings

For a First Nation to convert from a band under the Indian Act to a self-governing nation able to enact its own laws within its territory, the Nation must give up the possibility of having its sovereignty recognized separate from Canada.

Per Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, "the inherent right of self-government does not include a right of sovereignty in the international law sense, and will not result in sovereign independent Aboriginal nation states. On the contrary, implementation of self-government should enhance the participation of Aboriginal peoples in the Canadian federation, and ensure that Aboriginal peoples and their governments do not exist in isolation, separate and apart from the rest of Canadian society."

But Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who agrees with Diabo that tangible change will come from outside the system (such as action taken by the Unist´ot´en camp in BC), doesn't see voting as undermining the collective rights of a person's own nation. Tailfeathers, who lives in Vancouver and is Blackfoot from the Kanai Nation in Alberta and Sámi from Norway, see it as "executing one of the tools we have in our arsenal."

"I'm not so naïve as to think that if the NDP or the Liberals are in office they're going to follow through with all of their promises. I mean politics are sometimes founded on empty promises and that's what we've seen since the founding of Canada is a lot of empty promises," she told VICE. "But I do think at this particular point in time we're facing one of the most outright violent settler colonial governments we've had in a long time."

While Ernie Crey plans to vote, he says he doesn't do so—or urge other First Nations to do so—simply because of the Conservative government. Crey, a member of the Stó:lō Nation in BC, votes partly because he remembers a time when Status Indians couldn't vote and partly because he sees himself as a dual citizen, like "thousands and thousands of Canadians." Crey was 11 in 1960 when Status Indians, including his parents, were given the right to vote federally, decades after many First Nations fought and died in World War I hoping for equality when they came home.

"I feel I need to honour them," Crey says, and he doesn't think honouring them undermines sovereignty.

"It's going to take a long time for us to win recognition for Aboriginal sovereignty but I don't dwell a lot on the future," he says. "I have an eye to the future but I don't dwell on it a lot because we have so many issues as Aboriginal people to contend with everyday, whether its employment or housing or development in the community or education, health."

"We have many things to take care of and once in awhile we'll get a government in Ottawa that is prone to largely ignore our interests and, in some instances happy to be hostile towards us, and in either situation we need to rise to the challenge. We can't afford to allow ourselves to be ignored."

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