Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel

Photo via Michael Paolucci/Flickr user druojajay.

Photo via Michael Paolucci/Flickr user druojajay.

Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel (Kanien’kehá:ka Nation – Turtle Clan) first rose to prominence during her community’s resistance to a proposed expansion of a private nine-hole golf course into a sacred grove of pines near the town of Oka, Quebec in 1990. The resulting standoff at Kanehsatà:ke between Mohawk people and the Canadian army became known as the “Oka crisis,” and lasted for 78 days. Gabriel was chosen by the People of the Longhouse to act as a spokesperson for the community, and she became one of the faces of the struggle against the destruction of the pine grove.

The media has often presented the events at Kanehsatà:ke as a highly gendered event, with male Canadian soldiers facing off against male Mohawk warriors. The most iconic photograph of the crisis is one in which a soldier and a masked warrior stare each other down. The effect of this representation of the Oka crisis has served to erase the important role Mohawk women played in the resistance movement at Kanehsatà:ke. Gabriel was front and centre during the stand-off, acting as a key negotiatior and media spokesperson. She also spoke about the presence and leadership of women behind the barricades.

Gabriel has continued in her role as an activist for Indigenous rights since 1990. She has traveled internationally to speak about the events at Kanehsatà:ke. She has also participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues and the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In 2004, Gabriel was elected president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, a position she held until 2010. During the summer of 2012, Gabriel ran in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leadership race for the position of national chief.

She came last in the second round of ballots, with 17 votes, after which she threw her support behind Pamela Palmater.

Further Reading and Resources

Alfred, G.R. Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Conradi, A. Uprising at Oka: A Place of Non-identification. Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009) 547-566.

Obomsawin, A. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. NFB, 1993.

York, G. & Pindera, L. People of the Pines: The Warriors and the legacy of Oka. USA: Little, Brown, 1991.

Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote: Designated a ‘National Historic Event’ 2011

Veterans at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Vancouver, 1939. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, BC.

Veterans at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Vancouver, 1939. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, BC.

(en française)

Resolutely determined to serve their country despite not being fully recognized as equal citizens, 222 Japanese Canadian soldiers overcame prejudice and barriers to enlistment and fought for Canada on the Western Front of the First World War between 1916 and 1918.

Within days of the declaration of war by Great Britain and her Empire against Germany in 1914, members of the Japanese-Canadian community volunteered in recruiting offices in British Columbia to fight in the western European theatre. Initially refused entry to the Canadian Army, the volunteers were subsequently organised into a battalion by the Canadian Japanese Association and professionally trained, but the Canadian government, catering to domestic feelings, refused to mobilise these troops. By joining units in various provinces, 222 Japanese Canadians fought with distinction on the Western Front, where they initially confronted anti-Asian prejudice but earned the respect of their commanders and fellow soldiers while they battled enemy forces. Tragically, nearly one-fourth of them were killed in action and 92 were wounded.

Excluded by law from the right to vote, returning Japanese Canadian veterans pointed to their war service as a practical reason why this marginalised community should be granted the vote after the end of hostilities. Building on their contribution to the war effort, the surviving Japanese Canadian veterans launched a concerted grass-roots campaign in 1920 to gain the franchise which, by law, they had previously been barred from exercising in provincial, and hence also in federal elections. They continued this campaign through the 1920s, especially through the efforts of British Columbia Branch No. 9 of the Canadian Legion, which the Japanese Canadian veterans formed in 1926. In 1931, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia voted to enfranchise the Japanese-Canadian veterans and, within 18 years, all Asian-Canadians received the full rights of Canadian citizenship. These new voters and those who followed could look to the sacrifices of the Japanese Canadian soldiers during the First World War who paved the way for their attainment of citizenship, while all Canadians should celebrate the achievement of equal rights by Asian Canadians.

In 2011, on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Honourable Peter Kent, Minister of the Environment, announced the designation of the Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote as a National Historic Event. In due course, Parks Canada will consult with the Japanese Canadian community to plan the installation of a plaque honouring the memory of these brave soldiers who helped advance our concepts of citizenship while standing guard for Canada.

Further Reading & Resources
Lyle Dick, “Sergeant Masumi Mitsui and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial: Intersections of National, Cultural, and Personal Memory,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 91, Issue 3 (September 2010), 435-63.

Prisoners and the Right to Vote in the United States

The United States bars nearly 5.3 million American citizens from the vote on the grounds that they committed a crime: only 25% are in prison or jail and 75% are either on probation or parole or have completed their sentences (ACLU 2006: 3). Indeed, while it may not come as a surprise that 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense, lesser known is that even after the term of punishment expires, some states deny the right to vote for a period ranging from a number of years to the rest of one’s life.

The United States prison population has skyrocketed in recent decades—increasing 450% between 1980-2009 (The Pew Center 2009)—such that the country now incarcerates one percent of the adult population.  Adding those on probation and parole, one in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of criminal justice supervision  (The Pew Center 2009).  This population is disproportionately made up of young black and Hispanic men. In some states, one in three black men is under some form of criminal justice supervision (The Pew Center 2009).

Disenfranchisement has disproportionately impacted black citizens, and other racial minorities. All have been widely criminalized since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the late 1970s. Less than two decades after this program redesigned social and criminal justice policy, one in seven black men nationally had lost the right to vote, and as many as one in four in states with the highest African American disenfranchisement rate (Alexander 2010: 188). Significantly, while disenfranchisement policies prevent 2.5% of the total population from voting, they hit over 15% of the total population of African American men (ACLU 2006: 3). Many experts claim that these figures may even understate the impact of felony disenfranchisement, because they do not incorporate the millions of ex-offenders who cannot vote in states that impose fines or fees before their voting rights can be restored (Alexander 2010: 154).   Describing these fees and their legal complications as the “new poll tax,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander has documented significant parallels between today’s voter disenfranchisement and that of the Jim Crow era (1876-1965).

During that period, African Americans were denied the vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disenfranchisement law, even though the Fifteenth Amendment to the US constitution specifically provides that the rights of US citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color.  Formally race-neutral devices were adopted to maintain an all white electorate (Alexander 2010: 187).

With the 2012 presidential election looming, the issue of disenfranchisement is growing in significance.  Following the 2000 election, it was widely reported that Al Gore would have been elected president of the United States rather than George W. Bush if the 600,000 felons who had completed their sentences in Florida been allowed to vote,. The largest civil rights group in America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is currently petitioning the United Nations over what it sees as a concerted effort to disenfranchise black and Latino voters (Pilkington 2011).

These restrictions on voting are far from the norm elsewhere.  About half of European countries allow all incarcerated people to vote, while others disqualify only a small number of prisoners from the polls.  No other country permanently disenfranchises prisoners.



Works Cited

Michelle Alexander (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  New York: The New Press.

American Civil Liberties Union (2006) Out of Step with the World: An Analysis of Felony Disenfranchisement in the U.S. and Other Democracies. New York: ACLU. Available online: www.aclu.org/images/asset_upload_file825_25663.pdf

The Pew Centre on the States (2009) “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.” Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Ed Pilkington (2011) “NAACP warns black and Latino Americans could lost the right to vote.” The Guardian. December 5. Online:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/ 2011/dec/05/civil-rights-naacp-voter-warning


Further Reading

Human Rights Watch (1998) Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States.

Michelle Alexander (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  New York: The New Press.

Ryan King (2008) Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States. Washington DC: Sentencing Project.

Andrew Shapiro (1993) “Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy.”  Yale Law Journal 540, November.