First Nation’s Enfranchisement in Canada

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.

Photo via the_amanda on Flickr.

Photo via the_amanda on Flickr.

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.


Work Cited:

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

Diefenbaker Canada Centre. (2012). The Enfranchisement of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Diefenbaker, J. G. (n.d.). Letter from John G. Diefenbaker to Mrs. Hurley. University of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from

Further Readings:

Indigenous Foundations at UBC. (2009). Indigenous Foundations- The Indian Act. First Nations Studies.

Milloy, J. (2008). Indian Act Colonialism: A century of Dishonour, 1869-1969. National Centre for First Nations Governance.

Lawrence, B. (2003). Gender , Race , and the Regulation Native Identity in Canada and the United States : An Overview. Hypatia, 18(2), 3–31.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1999). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 5 volumes. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.


Two Row Wampum Treaty

Relationships between Settler and Indigenous peoples in Canada have long been negotiated and organized by treaties. One of the oldest and most important in North America is the “Two-Row Wampum” treaty between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Dutch. This treaty remains critical in understanding historic and contemporary relationships between settler and Indigenous peoples and the evolution and construction of political opportunity for both.

The Two-Row Wampum Treaty was negotiated by representatives of the Five (Six as of 1722) Nations of the Iroquois and representatives of the Dutch government in 1613. The belt consists of two bands of purple quahog beads separated with three bands of white welk beads. It constituted a peace agreement between the two parties as the imperialist Dutch moved into Haudenosaunee territory, the region of the south-eastern Great Lakes.

The symbolism of the exchange as well as the imagery of the wampum belt have been variously understood.  Indigenous law and custom interpreted wampum belts as a deep and binding commitment by both parties. According to Haudenosaunee oral history, the most common interpretation holds that the two purple bands symbolize two boats and the white bands are a shared river. These boats represent the two parties of the Two Row Wampum Treaty, travelling in the same river but each steering their own boat. The future involves a cooperative relationship between self-governing groups, neither of which was to be assimilated or subordinated. Thus, the Two Row Wampum belt invokes relations of peace, cooperation, and self-government.




While negotiated prior to the era of Canadian democratic suffrage and negotiated between the Dutch empire and one particular Indigenous nation, the Two Row Wampum Treaty has provided a basis for subsequent arguments that members of Indigenous nations, as allies not subjects of the British Crown, should not seek political enfranchisement within the borders of what became Canada. Their enfranchisement should occur within their own nations.  Not surprisingly, this argument has proved especially powerful for Indigenous nations with Haudenosaunee ancestry. Quebec’s Kahnawake Mohawk Nation asserts its right to self-government with specific reference to that historic contract (Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, 1996). Today some Mohawk citizens choose to carry passports issued by the Mohawk Nation, and initiate distinct laws on reserve. Many Mohawk women and men focus their political efforts at the level of their Indigenous nation.

The Two Row Wampum belt also has significance for Canadian legal theory. Indigenous legal scholar and member of Ontario’s Chippewa Nawash First Nation, John Borrows, has argued that the Two-Row Wampum should continue to provide the foundation for negotiating relationships between First Nations and the Canadian government, thus maintaining the right to self-governance and independent nationhood (1997). In Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (2010), Borrows argues that indigenous law should be seen as equal to common and civil law, and that incorporation of Indigenous legal systems in Treaty agreements exemplifies the multi-juridical system.

Though signed centuries ago, Two-Row Wampum Treaty continues to inspire and to challenge. Calls to revisit the importance of the Treaty as the legal, political and moral foundations of the Canadian state lie at the heart of the 2012 Idle No More Indigenous resurgence. Recognition of the nation-to-nation relationship embodied in treaties supplied  the focal point of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in December 2012 and January 2013.  The ideal of the ‘double wampum’ nevertheless poses significant challenges in capturing Indigenous diversity.  How can it address the circumstances of peoples who have never taken treaty (such as many First Nations in B.C.) or those who reside, sometimes for generations, off-reserve or in multicultural communities in which they are a minority (Anderson 2013)? How can a 17th century document address the emergence of significant diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic populations? How does the large number and diversity of Treaty agreements, in addition to Two Row Wampum, shape the relationships between Canada and Indigenous peoples? The Treaty’s meaning for women’s rights is also far from clear. Where should women work to guarantee equality and what does equality mean? Such questions ensure that Indigenous political choices remain complicated.


Work Cited

Anderson, Bonita (2013). Fractured Homeland: Federal Recognition and Algonquin Identity in Ontario. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Borrows, J. (1997). Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government. In M. Asch (Ed.), Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality and Respect for Difference. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Borrows, J. (2002). Recovering Canada The Resurgence of Indigenous Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Borrows, John. (2010) Canada’s Indigenous Constitution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kahnawake Mohawk Nation. (1999). STATEMENT CONCERNING THE REPORT OF THE ROYAL COMMISSION ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES. Mohawk Nation Office- Kahnawake Branch. Retrieved from

Muller, K. V. (2007). The Two “ Mystery ” Belts of Grand River. American Indian Quarterly, 31(1), 129–164.


Further Readings

Anaya, S James. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. New York: Oxford University Press , 2004.

Asch, Michael. “From Terra Nullius to Affirmation: Reconciling Aboriginal Rights with the Canadian Constitution.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 17, no. 2 (2002): 23-39.

Asch, Michael, and Catherine Bell. “Challenging Assumptions: The Impact of Precedent in Aboriginal rights Litigation.” In Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality and Respect for Difference, by Michael ed. Asch. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.

Berger, Thomas. A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas, 1492-1992. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1991.

Borrows, John. “Frozen Rights in Canada: Constitutional Interpretation and the Trickster.” American Indian Law Review, 1997: 37-64.

Williams Jr., Robert A. Linking Arms Together. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Woolford, Andrew. Between Justice and Certainty. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.

Pamela Palmater



Dr. Pamela D. Palmater (Mi’kmaq), member of the Eel River Bar First Nation, is a prominent lawyer and activist for the rights of Indigenous people and nations. During the 2012 leadership race for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Palmater challenged incumbent Sean Atleo, in hopes of becoming the first woman to lead the assembly.

Palmater is chair of Indigenous Governance and an associate professor in Ryerson University’s department of Politics and Public Administration. She is the academic director of the university’s Centre for Indigenous Governance. Prior to her academic career, Palmater worked at Justice Canada and for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. In 1998, she was called to the bar in New Brunswick. She received her doctorate in the Science of Law from Dalhousie University in 2009.

Until 2011, Palmater did not have full membership in her family’s first nation. Her grandmother married a non-Aboriginal person, which made Palmater ineligible for status until recent changes in the law under Bill C-3. She maintains the Indigenous Nationhood website. Her doctoral work focused on Indigenous nation membership, the Indian act and issues of status. Her thesis, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity, was published by Purich in 2011.

Palmater’s AFN campaign sparked a great deal of interest and became a hot topic of conversation on social media, particularly amongst Aboriginal youth. She called for more involvement of the grassroots in the AFN and was a strong critic of Atleo’s approach to working with the Conservative government. Palmater’s platform was also critical of what she sees as assimilationist policies undertaken by the current government. She called for first nations to gain a bigger share of the wealth from natural resources on their territories and for Canada to honour the agreements it has made with Aboriginal nations.

“Everyone talks about resetting the relationship. There’s nothing to reset. The treaty relationship is there. We just now have to get Canada to live up to its part of the bargain.”

During the campaign, Palmater also talked about the need to call a “state of emergency” to address housing issues in some first nations communities.

Prior to her AFN leadership bid, Palmater had never served as chief of a first nation. Palmater finished second to Atleo in the Assembly of First Nations race, with 141 votes in the third round of ballots to his 341.

Further reading:

Lawrence, B. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

Palmater, P. Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity. Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 2011.

Palmater, P. “Stretched Beyond Human Limits: Death by Poverty in First Nations.” Canadian Review of Social Policy/Revue Canadienne de Politique Social 65/66 (2011): 112-127.