How you can vote and sltill sleep at night

by reconciliationproject

How you can vote and still sleep at night

This column is a response to Russell Diabo’s excellent and powerful commentary on why First Nations persons should not vote in the upcoming federal election ( . In the end, I agree with Russ’s analysis and I’ll articulate why below. Before that, though, I think its worth pointing out that how people can justify taking a rights-based approach to First Nations issues, while still voting in federal elections.

It’s also a reaction to the shock and mild amusement I got from National Chief Perry Bellegarde calling for First Nations persons to vote in the upcoming federal election, while noting that he himself has never voted ( He cited a pretty extreme view of non-partisanship (even civil servants, who must be non-partisan, vote – though singing songs about it is a bit more of a grey area). This led me to a question: Can you vote, seek to advance indigenous rights and still sleep at night?

I see the law as little more than a series of discursive tools. And since I’m a serial contrarian, so I’ll take on the counterpoint – that it may be OK for some persons to vote.

At the outset, I will say that voting does require one to acknowledge one’s own Canadian citizenship. This is a bridge too far for a lot of persons and a lot of peoples. For example, particularly for some peoples, it can be very difficult to come up with a meaningful legal reason why indigenous peoples are subject to Canadian law. If you adhere to such arguments (which, again, are perfectly good), then I’m not sure it is possible for you to vote and still sleep at night.

Sovereignty does not need to be ‘zero sum’

The fundamental issue often raised by those who claim that First Nations persons shouldn’t vote is that in doing so, they are recognizing Canada’s sovereignty and implicitly, undermining the sovereignties of their own nations. This is a pretty powerful argument, especially to the extent indigenous peoples maintain and advance positions founded in sovereignty.

Does it undermine the sovereignty of one nation to participate in both its elections and in the elections of another nation? It seems some people object to voting in Canadian elections on the basis that it does. Is that assumption valid? It might help to look to examples in international practice to find out.

As luck would have it, there are likely thousands of persons in Canada and many thousands more worldwide, who find themselves in this very position. Dual citizens may already vote in multiple countries. Dual US-Canadian citizens, for example, can and do file absentee ballots to vote in US elections. In fact, some countries, such as Italy, have even built entire ‘overseas constituencies’, likely made up of some number of dual citizens! That means there is somebody sitting in the Italian Parliament right now, representing Italian citizens (including Italian-Canadian dual citizens) from the Americas.

Dual citizens of any combination of the United States, Italy, France and Canada (even with its new restrictions), as examples, are not any more or less loyal to their countries for voting in any elections (whether they are resident in a country or not). More important, it simply does not make a country less sovereign to allow dual citizens to vote.

What does this have to do with anything? Everything!

Say you are from an indigenous nation in treaty with Canada and you believe that treaty explicitly recognizes your nation’s sovereignty (it does, by the way), as well as Canada’s sovereignty. A true ‘nation-to-nation’ relationship, as contrasted to a purely domestic arrangement providing some degree of autonomy for your nation within a broader Canadian state (that might be called suzerainty, a term which is not in fashion these days). Well, then, you might consider yourself a dual citizen of your nation and of Canada – two equal and independent states, no different than being a dual citizen of Canada and, say, Italy.

All of a sudden, it might not look so bad to be voting. It doesn’t take anything away from your own nation’s sovereignty, and whatever happens in Canada’s elections, including how Canada itself deals with your nation, is probably quite relevant to you.

It’s quite true that the government of Canada, Canadian political elites and Canadian courts wouldn’t share these views. I’d say it’d even be a stretch to gain political or legal recognition out of the Canadian system (especially the political system) for meaningful autonomy.

And again, I have to stress that there exist indigenous peoples in North America who hold treaties which guarantee exactly the opposite: rather than integrating indigenous peoples into a broader sovereignty, they explicitly recognize that full indigenous sovereignty continues parallel to state sovereignty.  In fact, I could go so far as to suggest that persons from nations with such treaties could actually be violating their own treaty promises by voting in Canadian elections.

You’re already trying to influence Canadian politics

I really hate to break this to people, but a lot of us are already trying to influence Canadian law and policy. One pretty effective means for influencing law and policy in a democratic country is through electoral politics. Even some of those who are not voting are likely inclined to share their opinions regarding where Canada is getting it wrong.

For some, there is a world of difference between expressing your opinion, voting, providing money to a political party and joining a political party. Some of these, such as expressing an opinion, can be done by anyone. Voters have to be citizens (and possibly resident, I guess), I think only residents can donate and I have no idea what kind of restrictions there are on joining a political party. All of these activities rest on a spectrum of political engagement.

For others, these are all merely tactics on a spectrum of trying to influence a government – whether you see that government as foreign or domestic.

Other voters care what you think

I’m pretty sceptical of claims floating around that the First Nations vote could influence 51 ridings. Seems to assume all First Nations persons would vote strategically and all would vote for the same candidate. I think the number of ridings capable of being meaningful influenced, at least directly, by the First Nations vote, is much lower.

Even worse for all those supporting a particular party – the aboriginal MPs who won in the last election were split all across party lines. Which means if you’re thinking the aboriginal vote is going to oust the Conservatives, you may be mistaken. According to this article, 5 of the 7 aboriginal MPs elected in the 2011 federal election were from the Conservative Party Incidentally, I believe this past Parliament may have had more aboriginal MPs than any previous one. That should highlight the limits of relying only on electoral politics to advance change.

But First Nations, Inuit and Metis persons exercise considerable political influence in this country, not just because of the number of voters, but because other voters actually care about aboriginal issues – or at least what aboriginal persons think about other issues they care about. That may or may not influence individual voting choices, but it can have a pretty profound impact on public debate during the election period, which can actually translate into some kind of policy action in the ensuing government.

You don’t have to join a political party

Russ’s article is excellent in that it provides a very strong caution to those who think participating in elections is a particularly powerful tool to advance aboriginal rights. It isn’t. He tried that once, and did (I think) a pretty good job of influencing a party platform and raising the profile of aboriginal issues in electoral politics. I’d say he (and others, I should add) also did an excellent job of demonstrating the limits of electoral engagement.

I don’t think that experience is a reason not to vote, nor even not to join a political party and run for office. I do think that its extremely important to recognize there are some pretty severe limitations to relying on an electoral strategy to advance a rights agenda. I

This also seems to be a point that Pam Palmater makes at her indigenousnationhood blog (