Be­fore the Ballot

A cen­tury af­ter the first women in Canada were en­fran­chised fed­er­ally, Anishi­naabe writer RI­LEY YESNO, like many other Indige­nous peo­ple, grap­ples with the de­ci­sion of whether to vote at all

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o vote, or not to vote?”

Many Indige­nous peo­ple strug­gle with how to an­swer this ques­tion—in­clud­ing me. Dur­ing the most re­cent On­tario provin­cial elec­tion, the first since I came of vot­ing age, I wres­tled with whether to par­tic­i­pate up un­til the very mo­ment I cast my ballot. For months be­fore the elec­tion, I had re­searched and de­bated the is­sue. Now, stand­ing at the polls in my lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre, I had to make a de­ci­sion.

Thoughts of the gen­er­a­tions of women be­fore me were weigh­ing heav­ily on my con­science. I con­sid­ered the suf­fragettes and the hard work that so many had put in for me to be able to ex­er­cise this right. I rec­og­nized that women weren’t al­lowed to vote in On­tario un­til 1917, and that in 2018 we marked just 100 years since women were al­lowed to cast their bal­lots fed­er­ally—though Indige­nous peo­ple were in­el­i­gi­ble to vote with­out giv­ing up their In­dian sta­tus un­til 1960. (Inuit peo­ple were en­fran­chised in 1950, though they lacked ac­cess to ballot boxes in north­ern lo­ca­tions un­til 1962.) Not vot­ing felt like an in­sult to women’s suf­frage and an act of ig­no­rance in the face of his­tory.

I also thought about the Two Row Wam­pum belt and the im­por­tance of Indige­nous sovereignty. The Two Row Wam­pum Treaty of 1613 is one ex­am­ple of why tak­ing part in Cana­dian elec­tions is prob­lem­atic. The belt dis­plays two rows of pur­ple beads on a back­ground of white. One row rep­re­sents the Euro­pean ship, the other the First Na­tions ca­noe. A sym­bol of re­spect and peace, it sig­ni­fies an agree­ment to have two par­al­lel sys­tems, Euro­pean and First Na­tions, co­ex­ist­ing, but for both groups to refrain from in­ter­fer­ing with each other’s gov­er­nance pro­cesses and ways of life. Canada has mas­sively failed to re­spect this treaty.

While plat­forms and prom­ises may vary, I don’t be­lieve that any Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal party is truly re­flec­tive of the needs of Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. In this re­spect, I agree with those who choose to ab­stain from elec­tions. To vote in the cur­rent sys­tem is to per­pet­u­ate the same colo­nial­ism that so neg­a­tively im­pacts my peo­ple.

Other Indige­nous peo­ple, how­ever, ap­proach the idea of vot­ing dif­fer­ently. Many see it as a way to use their col­lec­tive power to in­flu­ence po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions—a tool to en­sure the best pos­si­ble out­comes for our com­mu­ni­ties.

Rec­og­niz­ing all of these per­spec­tives, I had to ask my­self some chal­leng­ing ques­tions. Can I live with par­tic­i­pat­ing in such a deeply prob­lem­atic—but hard-won—sys­tem? Is ab­stain­ing from vot­ing a protest, or is it a sur­ren­der to the will of oth­ers to dic­tate the fate of my com­mu­nity, for bet­ter or for worse?

When the time came, I de­cided that I would cast my ballot. I did so not in spite of the re­spon­si­bil­ity I felt to re­spect Indige­nous sovereignty and not be­cause of the weight of his­tory on my shoul­ders. I did so be­cause on my ballot I was se­lect­ing more than just names and par­ties. I voted for the fate of the land and en­vi­ron­ment, for the liveli­hoods of the most vul­ner­a­ble and for the fu­ture of the youngest gen­er­a­tions. I chose to look at vot­ing as an act of harm re­duc­tion: a small and im­per­fect at­tempt at fight­ing for the best op­tion avail­able in or­der to en­sure qual­ity of life for oth­ers, es­pe­cially those less for­tu­nate than I.

At the same time, Indige­nous voices that dis­agree with the vote are nec­es­sary and im­por­tant. Protest­ing and re­sist­ing sys­tems you dis­agree with is of­ten the only way to change them. I agree that, as fa­mously said by the Amer­i­can fem­i­nist writer Au­dre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dis­man­tle the master’s house.”

My first vote was a chal­leng­ing one, per­son­ally, morally, and eth­i­cally. I am still not cer­tain that I did the right thing, or that I will al­ways choose to par­tic­i­pate in fu­ture elec­tions. How­ever, I am cer­tain that as dif­fi­cult as they may be, these con­ver­sa­tions are im­por­tant to have, es­pe­cially when we com­mem­o­rate his­toric mo­ments like the 1918 fed­eral en­fran­chise­ment of women in Canada. Change doesn’t hap­pen in si­lence. If we want this coun­try to change in such a rad­i­cal way that it fully em­braces and re­spects Indige­nous sovereignty, we must con­tinue to ques­tion and de­bate.

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