First Nations peoples in Canada have a complex historic, legal, and symbolic relationship to enfranchisement. The vast majority could not vote in federal elections until a 1960 change in the Indian act legally reclassified ‘Indians’ as no longer “wards of the state.” Despite this long-delayed inclusion of Aboriginal people within the democratic electoral process, enfranchisement has never been a straightforward benefit. The vote and participation in the Canadian electoral system, have sometimes proved a straightforward attempt at the assimilation Indigenous peoples by the Canadian State. Participation in the Canadian electoral system may threaten distinctly Indigenous rights and practices. Thus, the 1960 enfranchisement of Indigenous peoples stands at the centre of the debate over whether it is possible to be both First Nations and to participate in the Canadian political system.
The history of gradual enfranchisement helps explain such concerns. Prior to 1960 particular Indigenous groups or individuals were enfranchised federally. This, however, required the sacrifice of Indian status with its accompanying rights or recognition. In 1857 the “Gradual Civilization Act” forced the enfranchisement of any Indian male over the age of 21 “able to speak, read and write either English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt” (3rd Session, 1857). With the right to vote for male Indians came the status of a “regular British Subject,” and land and other treaty rights were revoked. Only one man was voluntarily enfranchised in this act.
In 1880 an amendment to the Indian Act offered automatic enfranchisement to men who obtained a university degree. That evidence of ‘civilization’ was deemed sufficient to remove them from the status of a ward of the Canadian state. In 1933, another amendment allowed the government to impose enfranchisement on any male Indian who met the qualifications. His permission was not required. Indigenous servicemen in World Wars One and Two could seek enfranchisement but only if they surrendered rights and community membership. Only 250 agreed.
Until 1960, participation in the Canadian electoral system explicitly required relinquishing Indigenous rights and community membership in exchange for electoral participation. Thus, enfranchisement on the conditions set by the colonial settler state has required the disappearance of the Indigenous other. The meaning and the necessity of that sacrifice remain at the centre of debates about the proper relations of Indigenous and Settler Canada, and the method and purpose of participation in the Canadian democratic electoral process. While First Nations people can now vote without relinquishing their membership to their Nations, the history of enfranchisement raises questions as to whether participation in the Canadian democratic process threatens distinctly Indigenous political practices. That possibility troubles all Indigenous activists and complicates their relations with other equality-seeking groups who have a different history of engagement within the Canadian Settler state.
3rd Session, 5th P. of C. (1857). An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians. Toronto: S. Derbishire & G Desbarats. Retrieved from http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_07030/2?r=0&s=1
Diefenbaker Canada Centre. (2012). The Enfranchisement of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from http://www.usask.ca/diefenbaker/galleries/virtual_exhibit/enfranchisements_of_aboriginals/index.php
Diefenbaker, J. G. (n.d.). Letter from John G. Diefenbaker to Mrs. Hurley. University of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from http://www.usask.ca/diefenbaker/galleries/virtual_exhibit/enfranchisements_of_aboriginals/dief_to_hurley.php
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