Federal and Provincial elections bring out some interesting discussions, debates and varied emotions about whether a First Nations person should vote. If a person wants to vote in an election and how they vote is entirely their personal choice. No one should take away from a person’s free choice to determine the leader of their own choosing.
The debate on whether to vote ranges from we do not vote because it is not our government to encouraging others to get out and vote so we can vote in a government that is more favourable to First Nations. APTN is currently running a commercial with former National Chief Phil Fontaine asking people to get out and vote.
We have a federal election on Monday, May 2, 2010 and the opportunity is there to vote if we so wish. But do we do so?
As First Nations people, we were not always permitted to vote in federal elections. Indeed we were not even considered persons. Various Indian Acts from 1868 to 1951 defined a person to mean “an individual other than an Indian”. It is only in the past 60 years that First Nations people have become people under federal law. Pretty incredible history that shows the way the federal government has always chosen to think about us until fairly recently.
In 1857, the Indian Act said you had to enfranchise, that is give up being an Indian to vote. The rationale was that you had to have property in order to vote, and only when you moved off reserve could you own property and be allowed to vote.
The colonial attitude toward First Nations people permeated the political landscape and in 1875 the BC Elections Act provided that “No Chinaman or Indian can vote…”
In 1903 there was a case called AG for BC v. Tomey Homma and the AG for Canadian, The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council upheld the electoral law as valid.  A.C. 151 at 155-156. Of course then there was no Charter of Rights(1985) or even the Bill of Rights(1960).
Through the years the issue of voting evolved. In 1950 the Indian Act created a new provision that allowed you to vote if you gave up your right to freedom from taxation. Seems the tax exemption sections of the Indian Act have been an issue for the federal government for a long time.
Funny thing was that while the federal government rationalized keeping First Nations people from voting by saying they did not own property, they allowed British and other commonwealth citizens to vote if they lived in Canada for 12 months prior to an election with no requirement to own property. There was no equality or equity in how they treated First Nations people in comparison to other people.
Finally, in 1960 in An Act to Amend the Citizenship Act, “Indians” were allowed to vote without conditions. It is through this Act that “Indians” were given Canadian citizenship and by virtue of that citizenship, were allowed to vote. The government did not ask if Indians wanted to be Canadians, they just deemed them to be so. Anyone else who wants to be a Canadian has to go through a complex process.
So another argument you hear is that since it took such a long time to get the vote, First Nations people need to vote and take advantage of a right that was deprived from as till as late as 1960. Or the flip side since we did not ask to be Canadians why should we acknowledge a unilateral act.
Over the past few years we have witnessed countries like Egypt that have had their citizens rise up and go to war within their own country in order to get rid of a leader they did not tolerate and fought to have a better government put in place. When will Canada ever reach that point, or will we?
We also hear people saying they do not even feel remotely connected to the federal government and that it has no bearing in their lives. No relevance at all and why should they vote when they are so disengaged. But is the government so irrelevant? They manage the fisheries that are our life-blood, they try and regulate our right to fish. They appoint judges to the Supreme Court of Canada who hear cases that define our rights under the constitution. Any issues dealing with citizenship, land on reserve and provide funding to First Nations etc.
And then there is the thought that why should we vote, there is no one worth voting for. You have Steven Harper who won’t meet anyone who isn’t a card carrying Conservative. He distances himself from people by confining his time and energy to people who will vote for him without consideration of anyone else. The scandals his government has been involved in the past year alone would have caused anyone else to resign yet he manages to convince voters that those things don’t matter. You have Michael Ignatieff who has no charisma and the ability to pull the liberal party out of their obscurity like a phoenix. And you have Jack Layton who does have charisma and is well spoken but whose policies do not meet the needs of most Canadians. Not much to get excited about. Then there is Gilles Duceppe and Elizabeth May. The choices are the choice and may be limited but that is the Canadian political system.
Do we want to be part of change? Part of a revolution? I see university students getting riled up around the election. Rick Mercer is out there creating a stir so that students will get out and vote and show the world they are not apathetic. Will they do it? We will know in a few days. Will First Nations people ever feel the need to be so involved in government that they get out and vote? I don’t know the answer to that question but I do know this. I do not like the way this country is run especially now they treat First Nations people, our rights and title and the myriad of social, environmental, and economic issues we face on a daily basis. If we do not speak out, get involved, lobby, and get engaged, things won’t change. Over the years changes have been wrought by many generations of our warriors who have sat on blockades or walked in protests, who have brought major court cases, who have pushed governments to sit at the table with us and so many other efforts that have led us to where we are today. We have a long ways to go yet and finding the way to make positive progress and change will come in many forms. But we as individuals have to contribute in our own ways to this change. If First Nations people feel that voting in a federal or provincial election will help the battle, more power to them. And power to all our people in the ways they chose to move our agenda and make a difference for the people and our communities.
To vote or not to vote? The choice is yours and always will be. Do not let anyone else tell you what to do or not to do. We all make our own differences in this world, carving our path in our way is what gives us strengths as people.