By Marrissa Mathews
Now that the federal election has officially been called for October 19, 2015, the question has been asked as to whether or not Indigenous peoples in Canada will swing the vote. This brings about a myriad of other longstanding concerns and questions for Indigenous peoples. According to the Assembly of First Nations, there are approximately fifty-one ridings in which Indigenous peoples can head out to the polls to swing the vote and play a decisive role in whether or not the Harper Conservatives will be re-elected.
I get it, Stephen Harper is bad and he needs to go. But to what end? The lesser evil?
The Liberals are campaigning hard for the Indigenous vote, but I am skeptical, especially with the use of platitudinous language such as “nation-to-nation” by current Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. If he means it, that’s great, but the Liberals and the Trudeau family have a less-than-impressive record with regard to respectful and productive relations with First Nations.
I also worry about the calls for strategic voting because this may split the votes of the parties on the left and could very well lead to Mr. Harper getting in as a minority government. His hands will be tied but, as 2008 showed us, he is not above bending the rules in order to stay in power like proroguing government to avoid a non-confidence vote.
There is also the matter of the recently introduced Fair Elections Act which brought changes to the identification required to vote, interpreted by many as an attempt to mitigate the power of the Indigenous vote and discourage Indigenous peoples from taking part in the upcoming election. These not so subtle attempts have been used as rally-call by Indigenous communities and organizations to encourage their members to vote.
Then there is the broader debate among Indigenous peoples divided between the two camps of “to vote” or “not-to-vote.” One side argues that we need to be involved in the democratic process in order to have our voices and issues moved forward; the other side insists that voting would undermine our efforts to achieve sovereignty and that we should instead focus our participatory energies in our own forms of governance. Notice how the conversation already arranges us in an adversarial debate? I do not think this is a coincidence; divide and conquer tactics prevail.
And yet, I find myself deeply influenced by Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks when I think about what it means when Indigenous people vote – particularly with respect to the ways in which participation within the colonial structures undermines our right to self-determination and does not question the structures that are in place
I can understand the value of the debate about whether Indigenous peoples should vote, however I also have more general questions about the extent of democracy that Canadian institutions offer. Call me cynical, but if Canadians were more aware of the democratic deficit in Canada they would be appalled and would question the value of voting as well. Some examples of this include: the current first-past-the-post electoral system, practices such as toeing the party line, inadequate checks and balances (i.e. an appointed Senate), the powers of the Prime Minister with a majority government, and procedures like the prorogation of government. Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed comes to mind when thinking about how this system of governance fails to serve neither Indigenous peoples in Canada or non-Indigenous Canadians. In this case, the liberation of non-Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous peoples in Canada are linked.
In discussions with my friend and colleague, Stephanie MacLaurin, we have talked about spoiling ballots in order to show the lack of confidence in the federal government. Although it is an act of participating in the system, it is still a powerful gesture should one choose to decline their ballot. But then, the question arises about what the next steps will be if a significant number of Indigenous peoples in Canada and Canadians choose to spoil their ballots (and more politics of polarity will inevitably emerge from THAT debate).
This post is not written for one side of the debate or another – it is more of an exercise in looking at both sides and coming to a decision that I can live with. It is a difficult internal battle because there is so much more at stake than simply ensuring that Stephen Harper is removed from power. Vote, don’t vote, but know your reasons.
Marrissa Mathews is a Cree woman from Kapuskasing, Ontario. She is a fourth year undergraduate student in Political Science Pre-Law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.