Votes for Indians and Women in the New Dominion: the Case of Peter E. Jones or Kahkewaquonaby (1843-1909)


Chief Peter JonesPeter E. Jones or Kahkewaquonaby of Ontario’s Mississauga-Ojibwe advocated votes for Indians and for women. In 1866, he became one of the first Status Indians to obtain a medical degree and returned to his reserve in southern Ontario to be elected Secretary of the Grand General Indian Council. In this capacity he soon became a bridge between peoples, conveying the Grand Council’s concerns to government officials and ensuring that they received a reply. At a time when the franchise for male workers, Asians, women, and Indians was much debated (Strong-Boag), he supported the granting of voting rights to Indians and published the first Canadian Native newspaper, The Indian, to encourage them to vote. Appointed the Federal Indian Agent of his reserve, a post hitherto reserved for non-Natives, Jones abolished hereditary appointments and introduced democratic reforms.

An election organized by Dr. Jones may have been the first in Canada where Indian women (propertied settler women had voted in a wide variety of elections before Confederation) were allowed to vote. In 1885 Dr. Jones wrote a letter to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald thanking him for “making the Indian a person” by granting voting rights to qualified male Status Indians in some provinces (the Franchise Act 1885). Jones believed that “this step was the one most likely to elevate his people to the position more approaching the whites.” A few years later when a government commission came to his reserve to determine eligibility of families for band membership, Jones, now in charge of the band, decided to give women the opportunity to vote on the issue. While none had been invited to speak, he allowed them to vote, classifying them as wives, widows or spinsters. He left it up to Ottawa to decide whether to count their ballots. In fact the government refused to change the eligibility requirements and the record of male and female votes was not used, though kept on file.

Jones’ attempt to confer the franchise of the women of his community reflected his personal history. The son of Reverend Peter Jones, a Mississauga-Ojibwe Methodist missionary and his English wife (Smith), Dr. Jones’s family included Native and non-Native members who treated each other equally. The women were notably inspirational. His Mississauga-Ojibwe grandmother Tuhben-ahnee-quay (1780-1874) is now honored by a grove of ancient oak trees for helping survey the province of Ontario (Toronto Feature), his mother Eliza Field-Jones, the subject of two post-graduate dissertations in Women’s Studies (Lund), published numerous books, and his British-born wife Charlotte Dixon-Jones (1844-1921) was an early feminist.

Like other Mixed-race couples, such as the parents of E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), Charlotte and Peter had to work out their relationship in a world where racism was commonplace. As the wife of a Status Indian, Charlotte was entitled to purchase a first-class railway fare at half-price. The rules changed without notice in 1903 when Indian tickets were marked Second Class and she was asked to pay the difference in fares or sit in the smoking car. Humiliated in front of the other passengers, the self-conscious Charlotte refused to do either. The argument ended when she was unceremoniously ejected from the train. When he heard of the incident Jones sought legal remedy. The next day, accompanied by the brakeman, he undertook an examination of the train and found a special compartment bearing a no smoking sign that was only to be used when there were women passengers. He then retained a lawyer to “recover damages for being ejected from the train.” The lawyer cited the Railway Act, which stated that “a railway is bound to take reasonable means to prevent one passenger from assaulting another,” arguing that there is in principle no difference between an actual assault and the puffing of tobacco smoke in the face of a woman passenger. The Grand Trunk Railway Company was ordered to pay Charlotte Jones $10, plus her legal fees.

The two incidents of the vote and the legal case demonstrate the faith of many Indigenous representatives in the ‘Queen’s law’.  Dr. Peter Jones or Kahkewaquonaby was in some ways a forerunner of a later generation of Indigenous activists who would pursue legal remedies for injustice in the courts and indeed as lawyers from the last decades of the 20th century onward.


Further Reading

Lund, Jennifer. “Eliza Field Jones Carey’s Mission to ‘Civilize’ the Native Women of Early Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada” M.A. thesis, University of Toronto, 1991.

________. “Negotiating Race and Gender in the Diaries of Eliza Jones, British Wife of an Ojibwa Missionary in Upper Canada, 1823-1883.” Ph.D dissertation, York University, 2010.

Sherwin, Allan, Bridging Two Peoples: Chief Peter E. Jones, 1843-1909 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012)

Smith, Donald B. Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and

the Mississauga Indians, Second Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “The Citizenship Debates: the 1885 Franchise Act” in Robert Adamoski, Dorothy Chunn, and Robert Menzies, eds., Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002), 69-94.

Toronto Feature: Carrying Place Trail, Humber River, online at

Sherwin, Allan

Sherwin, Allan

Allan Sherwin, MD, PhD is a professor emeritus of neurology at McGill University whose clinical practice included work at a clinic responsible for a First Nations community.