‘It’s Like Painting a House When the Foundation is Crumbling’: Indigenous Refusal Of Canadian Civic Life
In consultation with the Senate to reform the Indian Act, Chief Angus Toulouse stated that reforming any part of the Act would be ‘painting a house when the foundation is crumbling’. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people living within Canada are subject to the Indian Act and have the right to vote in Canadian elections. Canada controls the lives of Indigenous peoples through oppressive policies, yet, expects them to vote in all settler-elections. Indigenous sentiments of settler elections mirror Chief Toulouse’s view that involving Indigeneity in settler structures is irrational and misguided because there are fundamental injustices in Canada’s governance.
The Indigenous right to vote came slowly and gradually improved through government policies. Inuit men and women gained the right to vote in the early 1950s, meanwhile, Status-Card holding Indigenous people were able to vote in 1960. Indigenous peoples were the last population to be granted the right to vote – exemplifying historical tension that predated Indigenous suffrage. Despite these voting policy changes, Indigenous communities did not see ballot boxes in all their communities until 1962, in which there were still several communities lacking basic voting resources.
From a petition of the clan mothers of St. Regis to the 1898 Governor-General of Canada, the women “considered the [Canadian] elective system as not being intended for Indians.” The goal was to shift authority from settler elections to Iroquois governance. Colonial structures were imposed on Indigenous peoples through violence, rape, and genocide and act against the survival of Indigeneity and Indigenous communities. Audra Simpson understands collective action, such as this petition, as acts of refusal in response to the imposition of settler-colonial order. She argues that refusal offers a “possibility for doing things differently” when addressing unjust power relations between Indigenous nations and Canada.
Indigenous participation in Canadian elections contradicts and is incompatible with Indigenous self-governance. For instance, smaller Indigenous communities may find themselves in large constituencies that establish non-Indigenous representatives. Indigenous people are often antagonized for low voter turnout during Canadian elections, however, this undermines the extensive discriminatory history of voting rights and fails to acknowledge Canada’s place in actively deterring Indigenous voters. Although particular nations may have adopted Simpson’s politics of refusal, there is value in fulfilling basic promises of accessing voting resources – not to mention the failure to recognize that Indigenous populations even require these resources.
It is important to note that many Indigenous peoples recognize their community as sovereign nations equal to Canada. Nipâwi Kakinoosit from Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta does not feel obligated to participate in Canadian elections because it is contradictory to Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty. In response to criticism, that by avoiding settler elections, Indigenous issues will continue to be neglected, Kakinoosit argues that regardless of engagement, the Crown has an obligation to Indigenous nations. Further, he states that ideally there should be no barriers to accessing elections if one does choose to vote, but by no means should any individual or group influence another to vote. Indigenous refusal of settler elections demonstrates the ongoing reality that each separate Indigenous nation is and should be naturalized as nations – comparable and equal to Canada.
The Mohawks at Kahnawake and Akwesasne, located in Hogansburg, Quebec, refuse to vote and, if someone does, they are “ostracized and told to leave the reserve.” For the Mohawks, it is a decision between assuring Canadian electoral obligations as opposed to those of the Mohawk Nation. Doug Cuthand, a Star Saskatoon columnist has a different perspective: fighting for the Canadian right to vote was not only valuable to Indigenous nations but empowers Indigenous people to engage themselves in the betterment of the public good.
Cuthand understands that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party sparked Indigenous inclusion in the 1960s – particularly with John Definkinbaker’s promises of granting Indigenous voting rights and sending one First Nations man to the Senate. He views Canadian ballots as a “tool for political power and change” that should be utilized by Indigenous nations across Canada. This perspective highlights the diverse views that emerge due to differences in colonial contact in varying Canadian geographic regions. This is significant because, despite the inclusive usage of ‘Indigenous peoples’, each nation and community has unique geography, government, and social structure that can contradict one another.
Current Vancouver-Granville House Representative Jody Raybould-Wilson, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, east of Vancouver Island, is an example of Indigenous leadership in the Canadian government. Although once with the Liberal Party of Canada, Raybould-Wilson is currently an independent member and is now isolated from both dominating parties. To an extent, this shift in legislative authority has shaped Indigenous politics because it marks Indigenous people as ‘independent’ of party faith and affiliations (SNC Lavalin aside). Indigenous peoples can perceive this in countless ways, however, the two dominating viewpoints are that she is either failing to advance Indigenous sovereignty by subscribing to Canadian political structures, or rather a champion of Indigenous representation.
Inuit people have experienced colonialism at an increased rate than First Nations and Métis peoples because of their geographical location. Inuit people occupy the land, ice, and waters of the Arctic regions encompassing Canada’s borders and beyond into regions claimed by nation-states. Canada only became aware of the Inuit people in the early 1950s, consequently, Canada’s interest in resource extraction manifested in forced and violent colonization. Inuit people experienced colonization differently than other Indigenous communities and consequently ascribe to Inuit self-governance and autonomy.
The Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic (CIDSA) is an act of resistance and refusal to exclusionary international relations and promotes Inuit consent, expertise, and knowledge. The act transcends Inuit populations over four nation-states (Greenland, Canada, Russia, and Alaska in the United States) and affirms that Inuit nationhood is equivalent to Canadian sovereignty. Subsequently, Inuit voting in Canadian elections can be understood as undermining Inuit self-determination.
First Nations, Métis and Inuit people experience Canada and settler-colonial structures in diverse forms and cannot be reduced to one, overarching argument. What is understood by Indigenous Canadians is that colonization has negatively disrupted their quality of life, self-governance, political identity, and citizenship. For numerous Indigenous communities, the politics of recognition manifests as acts of refusal to Canadian civic life. The common theme of social disorder and subjugation of foreign structures transcends Canada’s coasts and produces diverse levels of Canadian political participation. It is correct that the “houses’ foundation is crumbling,” yet, methods of rebuilding Indigenous-settler relationships requires understanding Indigenous history, its contemporary consequences, and the significance of meaningful conversations with Indigenous residents.
Monica Bassili is a fourth-year University of Alberta student double majoring in Political Science and Human Geography and Planning. Monica has been active within her community since grade school and has dedicated her work to benefiting the public good. Furthermore, Monica is working towards three certificates: international learning, sustainability, and Indigenous governance and perspectives. In this way, Monica is able to understand systemic issues in depth and develop intercultural communication skills that serve to facilitate projects in and around Edmonton. Monica’s focus is on public service and specifically, developing tools that serve underrepresented communities and individuals in need.