By Chadwick Cowie, Faculty Lecturer, Department of Political Science, McGill University
The question of Indigenous participation in Canada’s elections is repeatedly in the news.
Nunavut held its territorial election on On Oct. 25, and Canada’s 44th federal election concluded earlier this fall.
Some of the likely reasons it was top of mind recently are reconciliation and the number of unmarked graves of Indigenous children found at Canada’s most notorious attempt at getting rid of Indigenous Peoples: “Residential Schools.”
The question of Indigenous participation in Canadian electoral politics is one that is constantly debated among First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples. I don’t think many Canadians consider whether or not Indigenous Peoples should participate in Canada’s electoral process at all.
When addressing this topic, it’s important to consider differing views and citizenship — especially because most research doesn’t. Making up a small percentage of Canada’s electorate — 4.9 per cent of Canada’s population (this number doesn’t take into account eligible voters) — it is often argued that it is imperative that Indigenous Peoples vote in order to be heard and adequately represented.
What is not considered in this conversation is the historical formation of the Canadian state and what “citizenship” and enfranchisement mean for Indigenous Peoples. As someone who has studied this extensively — let’s get into it.
First Nations citizenship
When discussing First Nations citizenship, it is important to note that, like the term “Indigenous,” it is a blanket term that represents over 50 different nations and confederacies — all of which have different legal, political and socio-economic structures.
First Nations constantly remind Canada of the concept of nation-to-nation relationships, which inadvertently enforces the notion that they never agreed to being a part of the Canadian state in the first place.
As British colonies grew and formed the Dominion of Canada and subsequent confederation, citizenship and enfranchisement became a tool that attempted to erase and destroy First Nations.
When citizenship and enfranchisement was eventually given to First Nations people in 1960, the reason for doing so was not to recognize a nation-to-nation relationship. It was because of the idea that Canadian citizenship would further integrate First Nations into Canadian society, assist with socio-economic issues and help Canada in continuing to ignore First Nations autonomy, nationhood and their own citizenship.
For Metis men, Canadian citizenship was granted by the Manitoba Act in 1870. Their rights and identity as Metis were quickly eclipsed in the 1880s and `90s as they were targeted and the tyranny of the democratic majority was used to repel much of their recognition.
After the expansion of citizenship to Metis women in 1917, most Metis had to hide their identity, claiming to be Francophone, to avoid persecution.
The Constitution Act of 1982 recognized Metis as a distinct group that required inclusion and their rights be recognized. Since 1982, there has been strong movement on Metis recognition and their rights confirmed.
For Inuit, Canadian citizenship was granted in 1951, but the ability to vote or participate in electoral politics was denied well into the 1970s as ballot boxes and ballots were withheld from many Inuit.
Inuit rights and territorial rights were heavily ignored until the 1980s. In fact, one could argue that granting Canadian citizenship to Inuit was less about giving the rights of a citizen and more about using Inuit as human flagpoles as Canada sought to solidify its claims of sovereignty in the Arctic.
A delayed recognition of citizenship means something
For many First Nations, Metis and Inuit, Canadian citizenship did not and has not equated to belonging within the Canadian state but rather another form of degradation of Indigenous rights, recognition and nationhood.
For many, Canadian citizenship has been used to further entrench Canadian sovereignty and legitimacy while ignoring Canada’s colonial legacy and ongoing settler-colonialism. Canadian citizenship has been utilized in a matter that leads to misunderstanding, and a Canadian-centric view on nation-to-nation relations.
For those who fall under the blanket term “Indigenous,” participating in Canadian elections continues the legitimacy of the Canadian state, a state that has unilaterally imposed its will, and its settler-colonial presence on not only their territories but also their nations and themselves.
Many Indigenous Peoples opt to not participate for this reason.
But those who choose to participate, do so as citizens of their nations; they do this as a way to not only remind Canada of the nation-to-nation relationships that continue to exist and as a way to bring change from within the very structure that has been used to erase them. A structure that taught Canadians to forget that Canada is built on over 50 different nations and confederacies that have their own political, legal and socio-economic structures that were never given up.