Canadian Democracy vs. Indigenous People
By Aaron Mercredi
In the lead-up to the October 2008 federal election, there was controversy around new voting regulations in Canada. According to Elections Canada, it is now required that all voters show government-issued identification, which includes proof of an address, before they are allowed to vote. This new voting regulation, which is part of the amendment to the federal Elections Act, was put in place to prevent voter fraud, according to Elections Canada. But the new regulations actually end up excluding different layers of society from the voting process, including Indigenous people.
Under these new amendments, an Indian status card would not be an accepted form of ID, since it does not include a home address. So, for those Native people who cannot provide anything more than their status card, they would be left without a vote. Whether homeless, or living in a rural community where there is only a general delivery post office box, many Indigenous voters were turned away to present more ID. The bitter-tasting irony is that an Indian status card is what has legally linked First Nations people to their bands under the Indian Act. This identification means that that person has been tied to the territory that Canada itself sits on for thousands of years. So why, then, is that not sufficient enough to have a vote in the so-called democracy of Canada?
First Nations Chiefs came forward to show concern over the new regulations that would discourage Natives without proper ID from voting. Homeless advocates also caught on to the attack that the federal government was making on people who don’t possess the adequate ID. Although this is an issue that affects the homeless, seniors, students, people with disabilities, it is a further insult to Indigenous people who suffer from colonial Canadian politics, and is further proof that Canadian-style democracy does not represent Native people.
A History of Exclusion
The history of Canadian ‘democracy’ is actually an ugly and hypocritical history of denying Native people their most basic democratic rights. From the very outset, with the passing of the Indian Act in 1876 that imposed government control over Natives, their traditional forms of government were suppressed, if needed by force, and the colonial band system governance was put in its place. Indigenous nations were divided up into separate bands and reserves and the federal government used bands against each other to create divisions within the nation.
This went hand-in-hand with the forcing of Indigenous people onto reservations. The ‘civilization’ that Canada brought to Native people essentially declared Natives as ‘wards’ of the government—sharing the same status as children.
Under the Indian Act, Native people did not have the right to vote in Canada. The only way they could receive that right was through enfranchisement, in which they surrendered their status and treaty rights and assimilated into Canadian society. It wasn’t until 1960 that that condition was removed from legislation and Natives got to vote federally.
The farce of Canadian politics showed its face most clearly soon after Canada became a country. Louis Riel, a Métis leader, was elected to parliament on three separate occasions. Riel had led a provisional government over what became the province of Manitoba and was a staunch fighter for Métis rights. He never attended a session of parliament as there was a bounty on his head, and he was eventually exiled from Canada. After further protests and petitions from the Métis fell on deaf ears in Ottawa, he took up arms with his fellow compatriots and was hanged as a traitor by the same government that he had been elected to years earlier.
Is there any wonder, given the history of exclusion and treachery, that Native people are apprehensive about voting?
Already Not Convinced
A blatant example of the lack of interest put towards Indigenous people and our issues today can be taken from the last federal election. Which major party pushed for resolving the many problems that Canada has created for Native people? Bringing it up in a debate to attack another party or to garner votes from a Native electorate does not equate to a driving platform of the parties.
The one thing that did grab the country’s attention were racist remarks that surfaced by members of the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the lead-up to the election. While Simon Bedard was forced to resign for the Liberals after his racist comments from the 1990s Oka crisis surfaced, a Conservative Transport Minister’s aid who accused Native protestors who wanted a meeting of being drunks, only issued an empty apology.
The lack of acknowledgement and involvement of Indigenous people is shown in the record-low level of Indigenous people’s participation in elections. According to a report for Electoral Insight, titled “The Effect of Expansion of the Franchise on Turnout,” while First Nations voter turnout began at 65% in 1962, soon after First Nations were granted the vote, the percentage steadily dropped to 26% by 2003. With the new regulations on voting, we can only expect that percentage to drop even more. Instead of reclaiming the vote that had been denied them for so long, the majority of Indigenous people either lost faith or didn’t trust the newly granted democracy. Because the right to vote used to only come if a Native wanted to legally assimilate, voting today can be seen as a form of assimilation. The policies towards Indigenous people have always remained colonial, no matter what the government and what promises they made before Election Day. Given rising nationalism among Indigenous nations who want recognition as distinct people and nations, voting in the colonizer’s ‘democracy’ is going to be less and less popular.
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept only one; they promised to take our land, and they did.” - Red Cloud, Sioux
Red Cloud’s words ring true for Indigenous people in Canada as well. This last election, like the one previous and all elections that have taken place in Canada, took place in the context of a stolen land. This is even more blatant in the upcoming provincial election in BC, where 97% of the land of this province has never been surrendered by Indigenous people in treaties. Those elected have always tried to maintain colonial society’s dominance over the Indigenous population. The amount of reforms or concessions in favour of Native people that a government has made is the result of pressure put on them from below.
There can be no equal participation for Indigenous people in a colonial government. Their interests will continually collide and the government will always deny Indigenous people’s inherent rights. The extreme poverty, health issues and racism all come from this. The struggle for self-determination is not supported by any major political party. Instead, it is right now taking place away from the ballet box across the country as Native people stand up to defend what remains of their land and nations.
Back to Article Listing