Beyond “to vote or not to vote”.

It often comes as a surprise to many that Indigenous people in Canada tend not to identify as Canadian. What then do they identify as, you might ask? In general, Indigenous people identify themselves according to their nation: Cree, Mohawk, Dene, Métis, Anishinaabe, Inuit and so on. As peoples who have been given many names by outsiders as well as having names for ourselves in our own languages, we have many terms to choose from, but only rarely is “Canadian” among them.

After the question “what do you identify as” invariably comes “why not Canadian”? At the most surface level, the reason for rejecting Canadian as an identifier is based on a strong belief among Indigenous peoples that we never agreed to become Canadian, thus the label is inappropriate. A national identity that has been forcefully and non-consensually imposed on Indigenous peoples, is not to be embraced.

There are of course much deeper reasonings at play here. A rejection of Canadian identity is just one facet of a rejection of Canadian sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands. How this rejection plays out within Indigenous communities varies greatly.

For example, the Haudenosaunee lacrosse team will not travel internationally with Canadian passports, insisting on their sovereign right to travel with Haudenosaunee passports for official events. At times, these passports have been accepted, while at other times they have been refused. Taking a principled stance on this issue has a number of times prevented these lacrosse athletes, among whose nations the very sport originates, from competing in international events. The collective decision to insist that Haudenosaunee, not Canadian, sovereignty applies in this situation is certainly not made lightly. Individual Haudenosaunee may choose to travel internationally with Canadian passports, but this tends to be a matter of convenience (or perhaps better put, state coercion), rather than any sign of acceptance of Canadian sovereignty.

Most Indigenous communities in Canada have not yet exercised their sovereignty to the extent of issuing their own passports, but the rejection of Canadian sovereignty and identity often manifests as a refusal to participate in Canadian elections. This of course is not true for all communities, or all individuals. However, the number of Indigenous people who take a principled stance against participating in Canadian politics is significant. With federal elections looming near this fall, it is important to be aware of these dynamics, and to understand that the reasons behind low Indigenous voter rates go far beyond more commonly understood issues of voter apathy and disillusionment.

Within Indigenous communities (and most particularly online), the conversation rarely moves beyond “to vote or not to vote”, and proponents of both positions can become very passionate. Voting, or even worse, running for political office, is often seen as a betrayal of Indigenous sovereignty. On the other side, refusing to participate in Canadian political processes can be viewed as rejecting an important opportunity to correct the overwhelming lack of representation of Indigenous people within Canadian politics. The conversation is fraught with high emotions, appeals to principle or pragmatism, and to be blunt, things can get very ugly. None of this is made any easier by the often patronizing and unsolicited advice of non-Indigenous commentators who rarely seem aware of the deeper conflicts involved in this debate. I want to stress that this conversation within Indigenous communities is important, and contains much more detail and nuance than I have covered here.

There are many avenues of possible exploration here, including what sovereignty outside of the Canadian state looks like, but this piece is intended to focus attention on a discussion of one side of the debate. Over the next few weeks, hosts of the Twitter account @IndigenousXca will be presenting and exploring the relevance of specific federal party platforms for those Indigenous people who vote, or who are considering voting in this year’s federal election. This article is intended to lay out some ground rules for interaction with @IndigenousXca hosts, taking into account the volatile nature of the issues at play.

The first @IndigenousXca guest host to address specific federal party platforms will take over from tomorrow, July 16th to the 23rd, beginning at 7pm EST. Tanya Lalonde is Cree/Métis from Buffalo Lake, Alberta and the President of the Liberal Party’s Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission of Quebec. She will explore the Liberal party as it relates to Indigenous people.

The next week, we will hear from Aaron Paquette, artist, author, entrepreneur and now politician. Aaron comes from Cree, Metis, Cayuse and Norwegian stock and hails from Edmonton, Alberta where is he seeking the NDP Candidacy in Edmonton-Manning. Edit: July 23, Aaron won the candidacy today and is the official NDP candidate for Edmonton-Manning! (Congrats!)

I am still looking for someone to host the week after Aaron’s in order to explore the Green Party platform. I will not be promoting a Progressive Conservative Party host. That decision is mine, and is not up for discussion. Feel free to find another platform beside this blog, and the @IndigenousXca account to explore CPC relevance to Indigenous people.

As the purpose of these next three weeks on @IndigenousXca is to move beyond the “to vote or not to vote” debate, and because that debate itself can become so passionate, I will be taking a much more active role in the moderation of the Twitter account than usual. To facilitate a productive conversation that is not derailed by personal attacks against the hosts, or which becomes impossibly hung up on the vote/no vote dichotomy, here are the basic guidelines I will be enforcing as the @IndigenousXca admin:

  • Interactions with @IndigenousXca hosts must be respectful. This means no personal attacks. Questioning the political positions, policies, and actions of the federal party each host is representing is fine and encouraged. Those who engage in personal attacks against hosts will be temporarily blocked from the Twitter account for the duration of these discussions. I will personally be making the call to block people, and I am not at all interested in debating whether or not specific behaviours crossed the line or not. Keep it clean, folks. Obviously I cannot enforce respectful interactions with the hosts’ personal twitter accounts, but I am hoping that agreeing to host @IndigenousXca will not result in harassment for anyone.


  • It is up to the hosts whether they want to discuss their motivations or beliefs concerning participation in Canadian politics. However, I will give latitude to that discussion on the first day of hosting only, to ensure the bulk of the week focuses on specific federal party issues. If a host does not wish to engage in that discussion during their time, then I will enforce that decision.


  • If I post from the @IndigenousXca account, I will preface my tweets with [admin] to make it clear who is tweeting. To avoid cluttering up the account with admin tasks, I may also tweet from my personal account @apihtawikosisan. If that happens I will preface those tweets with [IndigenousXca admin]. Moderation from either of these accounts ‘count’, so please heed them both.

Basically, this is a conversation for people who want to explore federal platforms as they relate to Indigenous people, in the lead up to the federal election. This is not a discussion we often get to have in Indian country this side of the medicine line, so let’s try to make space for it. Those of us who feel strongly about not participating at all in Canadian politics still have plenty of opportunity to give voice to our reasons for that. The @IndigenousXca account will follow up this three party presentation with a week further exploring the “to vote or not to vote” debate itself, so there will absolutely be an opportunity then to have your say on those wider issues.

My thanks in advance for respectful participation in this discussion, and again, you can follow the @IndigenousXca account here!

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19 Responses to Beyond “to vote or not to vote”.

  1. Lisa Forbes says:

    Hi. I am one of the admins for Winnipeg Indigenous Rock the Vote in the Federal Election Facebook group. Just thought I would mention that the sovereignty thing very rarely comes up. Maybe it’s just a western thing that we don’t talk about it much. Our Grand Chief in Manitoba is encouraging federal voting and so is the national leader. You guys have the Six Nations out East and I know they are very strong Indigenous Nation sovereignists.

    Really – what we work on the most – by far – is explaining the voter ID and voter registration rules. That plus voter apathy – those are the biggest problems we face. There’s lots of Indigenous voting groups on Facebook. Besides us, there’s (not exactly the right names probably): Kenora Rock the Vote (Northern Ontario), Rally the First Nation Vote (Sault Ste Marie Ontario), Indigenous Vote Sask (Saskatoon), Indigenous vote PA 2015 (Sask), Indigenous Vote Lethbridge (Alberta), plus other smaller ones. All of them are doing voter registration and some are doing voter ID clinics.

    We also run Canada’s Indigenous Rock the Federal Election which is about the Fair Elections Act court case and also we hope other Indigenous voting groups keep that site updated. I strongly encourage you to check in with the group and blog Indigenous Politics – she keeps track of Indigenous voting stats and all of the Indigenous candidates across the country.

    • Awesome, thanks for the info! I do find, having moved out east, that the sovereignty issue here is much stronger, but I have also heard it echoed very strongly on the west coast. There certainly does seem to be a regional divide. It’s also possible that I experience selection bias…many of the people I interact with back home on the Prairies are pretty anti-voting. In any case, it will be an interesting discussion!

  2. Lisa Forbes says:

    oh yeah, I want to mention, rather than sovereignty as a reason not to vote, people say more that there’s no one who represents Indigenous interest, and that’s why they don’t vote. What we hear talk of more is a desire for a pan Indigenous federal party. Of the people I talk to – I hear a complete lack of faith in the Canadian political system generally and all the major Federal parties specifically when it comes to an Indigenous perspective and representing Indigenous interests.

  3. “Voting, or even worse, running for political office, is often seen as a betrayal of Indigenous sovereignty. On the other side, refusing to participate in Canadian political processes can be viewed as rejecting an important opportunity to correct the overwhelming lack of representation of Indigenous people within Canadian politics.”

    But I will hope that it won’t be felt to be a betrayal. This is your lands; not mine. I’m a first generation immigrant. I love this country and am involved in the political system. I want 30% of Parliament to be Aboriginal (at least). The only way we are going to correct all these injustices is for Aboriginals to take this country as it is, THEIRs, and to make things right. We need everyone to vote and many to be politically involved, even if it means another party needs to develop. I want these issues dealt with. I need my Aboriginal friends to be involved. Please vote, and take 10 others with you. Before you do, though, register to vote by phone or on line. I hope to get some “pop up” voter registration centers going (Samara website for kits).

    We need your input to implement the 94 recommendations, fix Freedom Road and all the other areas of this country that need to be the best places of comfort for families. We need people to have all the access they need to lead this country forward. Please join in. It’s a lovely country and we need your help to preserve it.

  4. Ken Paul says:

    I was fortunate to be selected randomly at a conference in 2004 to dine with the Rev Desmond Tutu in Winnipeg. He was very social and warm and reminded me a lot of my grandfather. He told me that he was 63 years old before he was given the right to vote for the very first time in South Africa.

    Although I am a Maliseet from a community that has taken many stands against the Crown and the industry endeavours, I always participate in voting. In our community during band elections, we typically have over 90% participation. In provincial and federal elections, this goes down to less than 20%.

    Voter suppression is a tactic that the Harper government is using to secure his position. In the past federal election, only 59% of eligible voters cast a ballot and Harper won a majority with approx 35% of the popular vote.

    I do not take my right to vote for granted. I think that if more people took on this responsibility (and I am looking at you Native youth), then we will not have another Conservative mandate and issues important to Native people will have a far greater chance of receiving support.

    Everyone that is eligible should go vote!!!!

  5. jurisblogger says:

    For the Green Party, I know there’s Lorraine Rekmans and Brenda Sayers who are candidates and have twitter accounts.

  6. Brock says:

    Looking forward to this Chelsea!

  7. I have forwarded this article to Aboriginal officers in the federal Green Party, and to all the Green Party candidates in Edmonton. Thank you , and those who commented, for bringing out the whole issue of voting. The only way nation-to-nation relationships will come into the operation of government is when all the nations participate in speaking.

  8. Gayl Veinotte says:

    Please remember going forward that IF Elijah Harper had voted Yes to the Meech Lake Accord, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, because Indigenous people across the country would have been permanently and irrevocably excluded from the Canadian political system and even, I dare say, from view: No APTN, no Eighth Fire special on CBC, no Idle No More, no AFN, nada, because Indigenous people would have been relegated under “the constitution” to being wards of the state under the department of indian affairs in perpetuity going forward. As a 65-year-old white woman who was born in this country, I can tell you from personal experience that NO political party has effectively supported Indigenous people, their human rights, their sovereign rights, indeed their right to life. I fully support Indigenous people achieving full sovereignty, and I understand how you would think that the way to achieve that may be to get in the game everywhere and anywhere a toehold can be found. I just don’t trust that such a toehold exists in any Canadian political party without that party’s partisan agenda negatively influencing the effectiveness of Indigenous representation. In other countries, Indigenous people are forming their own political parties and are gaining ground. Why not here? We have a multi-party system; why not use it?

    • Lol, you’re preaching to the choir when it comes to my personal views on this! 😀

      • Randy says:

        Interesting that you brought up the issue with Cree, Ojibwe, Dene, Metis, etc. identifying as “Canadian”. It seems that many Oglala Lakota Sioux people from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota tend to not only identify strongly as Sioux and Indian, but also as “Americans”. One Lakota man also mentioned that the Lakotas are very patriotic as a people, in this regard. Any thoughts on this?

        • I can’t speak to that at all, I have no idea. There are significant differences in perspective north and south of the colonial border, shaped by specific histories and policies.

          One thing that IS shared on both sides of the border, is a very high participation in the armed forces in both countries, regardless of what feelings (of patriotism or otherwise) motivate that.

          • randy says:

            Considering that, is it common for tribes on the canadian side of the colonial border to honor their military veterans in venues such as at a powwow or some other type of tribal or inter tribal gathering?

          • Absolutely. During grand entry there is always a veterans’s flag, and an MIA flag. Veterans are very respected in our communities, despite the tensions involved in serving with a foreign nation’s armed forces.

  9. Joe McKay says:

    Once again I am impressed by the intelligent and insightful commentary of this blog. For the last couple decades I have declared that I am Metis first, Albertan Second and Canadian because they issue my passport. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find others have a similar view.

  10. Donna Meness says:

    The Haudenosaunee first issued their own passport in the 1920s for one of their members to attend a League of Nations conference in Geneva. In 1977, the Confederacy reached an agreement with the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries to accept the passports as valid travel documents. Since then, delegations and individual members of the Haudenosaunee have traveled to various countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia using the passports.

    To understand the political relationship between the Iroquois Confederacy and Colonial America, requires an understanding of the Covenant Chain concept. The Covenant Chain was an ongoing set of councils and treaties between the English colonies in North America and the Iroquois Confederacy. These treaties and councils covered such contentious matters as trade, settlement, and the resolution of episodes of violence between Colonial-settlers and the Iroquois. After the breakdown in the Covenant Chain, the English Government stopped allowing local officials to negotiate state matters with the Iroquois and took a much more active role; dealing with the Confederacy as a sovereign Nation.

    more in depth:read Uneasy in US, Iroquois believe survival’s at stake on page 4of 20,%202010.pdf

    For those interested in the history of the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz, follow the trail back to the ” White Roots of Peace” Outreach Program which came about because of the ” Indian Defense League of America” which Clinton Rickard established in1926 at Deskaheh’s deathbed request after returning from Geneva in 1925.

    Utube has the photos of the annual Indian Defense League of America Bordercrossing Parade & Celebration held since 1927.

    Note: Walter Golden the note taker of the 1774 Governors’ Meeting ( NY, Pennsylvania, Delaware, & Virginia ) who had brought them to Pennsylvania for Ben Franklin to print up. ..who like the idea & 10 yrs. later called it the Albany Plan of Union & he asked Hendrick Mohawk to preside…)course the British had a spy who wrote to the king in 1754)so out of this came the Continental Congress which was the FIRST TREATY with the USA which is recorded by the 1776 Wampum…which enraged George Washington & was recorded by a guy named Morgan whose field note are in the Pennsylvania U museum..those missing pages were given to Dennis Banks who contacted Oren Lyons faith keeper of the Iroquois League.

    noted here :

  11. epweissengruber says:

    Is there any way to make participation in municipal elections more accommodating to Indigenous concerns? To me people residing in an area should have a say in how that area is run. Are there barriers that prevent Indigenous people from having a say in urban settings? To me, it doesn’t matter if you are a recent immigrant, a citizen, or are part of a sovereign nation inside Canada — if you live in Toronto, you have a say in how this place is run because you are here, now. But that is coming from a radical and decentralized view of belonging and decision making.

  12. rightojibwe says:

    “I thought about it, and then thought about it some more”. This is what I think about the voting thing. I agree with the Mohawks on their fight for sovereignty. They have made a stand and are trying to live by it. Good for them. i also think that we are not in isolation. the government has impact everywhere in the world. Especially with the Earth and how we treat it. I don’t like the way that companies are supported by governments and are attacking the lungs of the world – boreal forests in canada and the amazon forests. Exploration of resources and mass logging, corn fields for fuel, is killing our lungs. So i think it is a vote to look at the other things beside my own being = Indigenous being = sovereign or not. I also kind of think most if not all our sovereignty has been taken from us. and much we have walked away from. so it might be a moot point now. the only way we can ever become sovereign again is to take it. That may not happen in my lifetime. but it will happen. Like all oppressed, there comes a moment that changes everything.

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