Election 2019: Moving beyond “to vote or not to vote”

September 3, 2019

Graph showing Indigenous voter turnout over the years

Should we, as citizens of Indigenous nations, be voting in settler elections? It is the question many Indigenous people contend with whenever a federal election draws near. The debate can be tense given Canada’s colonial history, and because many Indigenous people do not identify as “Canadian.”

On one hand, canadian politics is a foreign, colonial system built to exclude Indigenous peoples. Historically this is the case, as Indigenous peoples were not able to vote until the 1960s unless they gave up their status as Indians. Therefore, we as Indigenous peoples should be rebuilding our political and legal systems fractured by settler-colonialism.

On the other hand, voting in settler elections is a form of interference. Indigenous sovereignty is not violated by participation. Rather, voting is a strategy used to create favourable outcomes that may further the interests of Indigenous peoples.

Except the choice to vote or not is rarely ever clear cut. Framing the discussion as an either-or issue glosses over considerations regarding the political acts of Indigenous resurgence. For Indigenous peoples, voting is just one of many tools to be used, not the end objective of a political act, as it is otherwise conceptualized within a liberal democratic state.

So why vote at all?    

Approximately 56% of Indigenous people live in urban areas, according to the 2016 census, an increase from just over 50% in 2006. As more Indigenous people become urbanized they are directly affected by the decisions of Parliament. Clayton Thomas-Muller, senior campaign specialist at 350.org, notes the shift in power for urbanized Indigenous folk.

“We have more graduates coming out of high school and postsecondary than ever,” he tells me. “These young people are homeowners and professionals. They are buying property, paying taxes… and they deserve representation in the settler-colonial state government.” For Thomas-Muller, who believes Indigenous youth should be voting, the transfer of economic power results in the need to participate in settler elections.

Indigenous peoples are indeed participating. In the 2015 federal election we voted in record numbers. According to Statistics Canada, the on-reserve turnout increased 14 percentage points between 2011 and 2015. The overall voter turnout for self-identified Indigenous people was over 490,000. A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science suggests that the rise of the Indigenous vote is also attributable to an increase in the number of Indigenous candidates. Political parties that present Indigenous candidates receive more votes, especially in ridings with a high proportion of Indigenous voters, according to this research.

In short, representation matters. However, as writer and artist Aylan Couchie from Nipissing First Nation points out, representation only matters if the candidates are accountable to their community. “I have a really hard time when people who are in politics turn around and say things that are opposite of what the general Indigenous community is saying,” she says. Our conversation turns to Winnipeg-Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Manitoba MLA and NDP leader Wab Kinew as examples.

Ouellette was criticized by Indigenous communities in 2017 for sympathizing with the family of Gerald Stanley, a Saskatchewan farmer found not guilty in the murder of Red Pheasant First Nation citizen Colten Boushie. Meanwhile, Kinew’s statement concerning his sons being labelled victims of genocide instead of focusing on the recent conclusions of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2-Spirit People draws ire from Couchie. “It’s the most you can turn your back on your community,” she asserts.

Still, these issues do not deter Indigenous people from voting. In fact, participating in settler elections is a form of “harm-reduction,” according to the artist. All political parties cause harm to Indigenous people, but for Couchie the rise of white supremacy on the political right is reason enough to try and mitigate the threat through voter participation. Others who may never have voted before, but who are alarmed at the global issues directly affecting them, are likewise reconsidering their positions.

RJ Mitchell, a Carleton University student from Akwesasne First Nation who has never voted, says he realizes the urgent need of global leaders to address the climate crisis. “Stay in your own canoe, that’s what I used to believe,” Mitchell tells me, referencing the two-row wampum—a 17th century treaty between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch wherein neither side would ever interfere in the affairs of the other. Yet through his studies in geomatics, Mitchell says he now understands how dangerously close the climate crisis is to our doorstep, and how badly we need to see rapid systemic change.

“Realistically, what it comes down to is changing the leadership and changing the system. Those are the two biggest things that can be done.” In order for both to take place, Mitchell says the electoral system needs to move beyond the two-party regime that has been characteristic of canadian politics.

Although third-parties like the NDP, Greens, Bloc Québécois and the short-lived Reform Party have been influential in canadian politics, only Liberal or Conservative parties have ever held power on the federal level. For Mitchell, alternative choices in the electoral system might increase voter turnout overall. If not, “our only option might have to be revolution, since it has been the only thing that has created change.”

Yet there are still people who choose not to vote at all.

Brad Evoy, a community organizer from Qalipu First Nation, says that voting only reinforces the settler-state. Rather than voting, Evoy dedicates his time to other political actions like land defence. “Being able to focus on those aspects feels like a fuller way of reaching our goal of [resurgence] than sinking a bunch of time in an electoral process that, ultimately, is not accountable to our traditions or peoples,” he says.

Dara Wawatè-Chabot, a 22-year old Anishinaabe-kwe living in Gatineau, Quebec, proposes that the limitations of the democratic system outweigh the progressive changes that do happen. “The essence of the canadian political economy is based on the resource extraction and the disempowerment of Indigenous peoples,” states Wawatè-Chabot. “There is only so much change we can do within the system itself.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that there are a multitude of reasons why Indigenous people choose to vote or not. Regardless of their position, there are common themes occurring in this debate.

Self-determination and the fear of assimilation

The right to self-determination was popularized after the First World War, in negotiations toward the Treaty of Versailles, based on then U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that it was an "imperative principle of action" that “peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.” But this left open the question of who would be afforded the right to self-govern, and to what extent?

While the right to self-determination is recognized internationally via the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), in substance it is very limited, since Indigenous peoples can only govern in local, internal matters. Further, the “blue water thesis,” which asserts that decolonization is only applicable in colonies separated from their colonizers by a distinct geographical boundary such as an ocean, has not fully been challenged within the UN. This makes decolonial efforts harder for Indigenous peoples affected by settler-colonialism, since the state already surrounds them.

Canada is a settler-colonial state but recognizes Aboriginal and treaty rights in Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those rights have been ambiguous since the Constitution’s entrenchment in 1982. Parliamentarians have claimed Section 35 as a “treasure chest” full of rights, but Indigenous people see only an “empty box.” In 2016, MP Romeo Saganash (Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou) introduced Bill C-262 that would have aligned Canadian laws including Section 35 rights with the principles of UNDRIP. However, resistance in the House of Commons, and filibustering tactics in the Senate from Conservative government–appointed members, eventually squashed the bill in 2019.

This is a main reason why Ryan McMahon, Anishinaabe comedian and writer, says he no longer votes. While going to the polls may be a good strategy for Indigenous people attempting to be rid of a party that actively harms them, the main objective for McMahon is to realize full Indigenous liberation. “We have to be really critical of what exists in front of us and be very purposeful in building alternatives,” he says in in reference to the foreign styles of governance imposed on Indigenous peoples through the Indian Act.

Fortunately, alternative forms of governance are taking place. “There are plenty of young people who are engaged in traditional forms of governance, whether it means helping out at ceremonies, or helping out on the traplines,” says McMahon. Sweeping change won't come all at once, he adds, but will take place through "everyday acts of resurgence." The phrase was first coined by Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel, who focuses on the often unseen, unacknowledged actions of Indigenous peoples to promote health and well-being on individual and communal levels.

Everyday acts of resurgence are very political in a society that attaches a price to every little thing. Living off the land and learning from it certainly challenges the very notions of capitalism. In Indigenous governance systems the natural world is not to be exploited for profit but is meant to coexist with humans. Ian Campeau, human being from Nipissing First Nation, explains this relationship through the principles of the honourable harvest.

“Don’t take the first plant you see, it might be the only one; don’t take the last plant you see, might be the last one; only take half of what is available, and take only what you need,” says Campeau. The honourable harvest ensures the sustainability of a plant, and that we stay in good relation to it.

Yet even when practising everyday acts of resurgence, the fear of assimilation permeates through the minds of Indigenous people. McMahon admits to often balancing what we have to gain with what we have to lose by giving in and saying, half-jokingly, "You’re right, Great White Daddy, we are Indigenous Canadians.” He wonders, “Would we go further, faster, if we assimilated in that way?" Almost every person I spoke to for this article relates to the same fear of assimilation in one way or another.

Of course, views on assimilation vary as much as the views on voting in settler elections. Wawatè-Chabot says she is not afraid of assimilation, because in choosing to become politically active one can reclaim their voice. In a settler-state, Wawatè-Chabot says, “you got to do what you got to do to survive in this world when it goes against every aspect of your being.

Others, like Campeau, suggest we are already assimilated. "We don't speak our languages fluently,” he notes. Still, he claims there are ways out. Language reclamation is one way since it re-establishes a certain way of thinking. According to Campeau, Anishinaabemowin is action-based and is grounded in the knowledge of the land. "It is what gives us our power as political beings," Campeau claims as he tells me the story of Bigonegiizhig, or Hole-In-The-Day.

In the 19th century, Bigonegiizhig, feeling the pressure from an influx of settlers, threatened to attack a nearby fort. The U.S. government responded by sending a large cavalry unit to the area where Bigonegiizhig was located. After hearing the news, Bigonegiizhig mobilized other Anishinaabe in the surrounding area to also gather at the fort where he instructed everyone to hide in the bush. When the cavalry arrived, all the Anishinaabeg rose up in unison as ordered by Bigonegiizhig. The act alone was enough to force the Americans into negotiations.

The lessons I take from Campeau’s story of Bigonegiizhig is of the non-violent political power we hold as Anishinaabeg. In order to harness that power, we need to separate ourselves from the canadian state and return to our legal principles, Campeau says. "Learn everything you can. Learn your heritage. Learn your language."

For me, no amount of voting in settler elections will teach me to reclaim what settler-colonialism has stolen.

We are our own

On first glance, the voting debate reflects the issue that Audre Lorde brought to feminist theory almost 35 years ago. In asking whether the Master’s tools could dismantle the Master’s house, Lorde was challenging the white, heterosexual biases of feminist academics. In other words, the tools that reinforced and relied on a racist patriarchy could not be used to dismantle a racist patriarchal system. Lorde’s assertion has been used in many contexts where oppressive dynamics are at play.

Yet the issue goes deeper. Political action that seeks out Indigenous self-determination does not end at the voting booth. Acts to reinstate Indigenous ways of knowing, being and governing are continuous processes. The debate that frames the question whether citizens of Indigenous nations should vote as two mutually exclusive categories erases the political actions that Indigenous peoples are undergoing to reassert their nationhood.

That is not to say we don’t see value in influencing settler elections. In fact, the vast majority of Indigenous folk see it that way; voting is an important aspect in not only reasserting our national aspirations but also stemming the tide of forces that would harm those objectives.

That is also not to say we value settler elections either. Generally, we don’t. Campeau equates voting to watching hockey. “I love canadian politics,” he exclaims. “If people want to go and vote, I’m all for that, but I know it’s not going to change anything.”

The conversation as to whether Indigenous people should vote needs to be reframed, otherwise those invested in dismantling colonial structures will only assist in reinforcing them. Despite our differences in opinions, we agree on one thing: We, as Indigenous peoples, are our own peoples, and whether or not we decide to vote in settler elections, we will remain our own peoples.

Ashley Courchene is an Anishinaabe legal scholar at Carleton University and the national chairperson for the Circle of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Students at the Canadian Federation of Students.