This First Person column is written by Waabshkigaabo (Will Landon), a citizen of Wauzhushk Onigum Nation which is on the northern shores of Lake of the Woods in Ontario. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
For a counterpoint take on voting on the federal election, read “As an Indigenous Sovereign, I will vote in this year’s federal election.”
There’s been a longstanding debate when it comes to voting as a First Nations. Do you vote in order to get a “friendly” government that will support First Nations to attain a better quality of life? Or do you not vote because it will erode our sovereignty, nationhood and identity?
When I was younger, I wanted to cast my ballot as soon as I turned 18. Like other First Nations, I thought that voting would have a positive impact on Indigenous lives since we could help determine who formed the government and set policies.
But the more I learned about Canada’s history and began to understand what it meant to be Anishinaabe who never gave up their rights to self-determination and nationhood, my desire to vote changed. Today, I believe that it doesn’t matter which party is in power or how many First Nations faces sit in parliament. Things won’t change until we recognize self-determination for ourselves and fight for the change of our quality of life from within.
The leaders in my family, most prominently my grandmother, helped shape my view to believe that Anishinaabe are separate from the Canadian socio-political body due to the inherent differences in our relationship with the land and our responsibilities as sovereign treaty persons.
When entering into the treaties, we as Anishinaabe understood that we would not interfere with each other’s way of life or governance but would respect one another as neighbouring sovereigns. Clearly, that didn’t happen. Colonization came in the form of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and exists even today in the form of reserves and the child welfare system.
Some argue that this interference means First Nations people are within our rights to vote — the treaties aren’t being honoured, so this is our best shot of determining our future. But just because Canada is not holding up its end of the deal doesn’t mean we should also renege on our side. More importantly, participating in these elections grants power to Canada because we’re tacitly giving it decision-making authority over First Nations lives.
Others argue that First Nations only got the right to vote in 1960, so we should take full advantage after having been excluded from the Canadian political process for so long.
It feels almost insidious as though the government had recast its assimilationist policy in the form of integration. Hence voting can be considered a continuation of colonization.
There are several ongoing campaigns to boost Indigenous turnout including ‘rock the vote’ among First Nations, and you can see the impact on parliament. In 2015, Indigenous voters helped put Justin Trudeau and the Liberals into power with a record turnout — 61.5 per cent of people living on reserves cast ballots.
And yet, it seems things haven’t turned out much better. Development continues to infringe on land rights and title, MMIWG promises remain stagnant, and other sectors in Indigenous policy are dissatisfied with the Liberal performance.
Those who disagree with me might say that First Nations should vote to influence who our partner is across the table. Perhaps an NDP government might be different or the Green Party.
But that’s not the point. It seems First Nations are so worried about looking for recognition and support from Canada that we forget we do not need it as much as we think.
Everything we need is within ourselves, particularly our traditional governance structures.
While it is important that Canada lives up to its treaty obligations and agreements, it’s more important that we hold Canada accountable through the courts and legal system as a partner than as a participant because one acknowledges our inherent nationhood and the other diminishes it.
As a citizen of the Anishinaabe Nation, I have never voted nor ever will in any Canadian institutional election, but I will continue to participate in my home nation of Wauzhushk Onigum’s customary election.
This is a complex issue and I encourage all First Nations people to consider where they are coming from and to look ahead at where they are going. I have decided to honour and respect my obligations as a spiritual being to the relationship we have formed with another nation and the responsibilities that come with that. Most importantly, I want to ensure that the future generation never forgets that they are a nation.
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