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
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.