Why some First Nations people hope Cancel Canada Day boosts Indigenous turnout in 2021 federal election

For Tara Martinez, this is the most important federal election in her lifetime — especially for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada.

“You can’t ignore us anymore. We’re here. And when we vote, we can swing the vote,” she said.

Martinez, from Little Saskatchewan First Nation, says the momentum behind Cancel Canada Day events is fuelling that feeling of urgency.

On July 1, thousands of people across the country walked in city streets to protest Canada Day. Instead of celebrating confederation, the crowds were calling attention to the unmarked graves of residential school attendees.

Martinez was at the march in Winnipeg and helped organize some of the participants. She said she was trafficked years ago as a teenager. As a result of her experience, she says she dedicates her time to grassroots work preventing children from being abused and raising awareness around MMIWG.

Though Cancel Canada Day called out governments and their colonial pasts, Martinez said voting can be a way for Indigenous peoples to make major changes, especially in the way the federal government acknowledges what happened at residential schools.

“I think that Cancel Canada Day got a lot of coverage on issues that have been ignored for a really long time,” she said.

“A lot of us are realizing the importance of voting and who we vote for.”

Tara Martinez helped organize participants of the Cancel Canada Day march in Winnipeg on July 1. Crowds across the country protested Canada’s colonial past and urged action on unmarked graves at residential school sites. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Voting ‘a very reflective process’

It’s a topic Réal Carrière has had several times with his students — and himself.

“The choice to vote can be a very reflective process for many Indigenous peoples,” said Carrière, who’s from Cumberland House Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and is a political sciences professor at the University of Manitoba, specializing in Indigenous politics and governance.

“Does it mean I am surrendering my self-determination and participating in a colonial state that’s been actively eliminating my peoples? Or does it mean … despite that act of ongoing genocide, I want to participate to give the candidates a message?”

Carrière cast his first election ballot during Stephen Harper’s time as Prime Minister in the mid-2000s. Years later, several movements led by Indigenous peoples gained momentum in 2015 to vote Harper out of office. 

“I come from Treaty Five and the underlying philosophy of the treaty is it’s possible to share,” he said.

“That has made me think, well, it’s possible to participate in a Canadian election, one that isn’t mine, because I have that shared voting participation.”

Réal Carrière, pictured on his canoe on the Red River, is a political science professor at the University of Manitoba, specializing in Indigenous knowledge and governance. (Sam Samson/CBC)

The right to vote a recent one for Indigenous peoples

Under the Indian Act in 1876, First Nations people were only allowed to vote in federal elections if they gave up their Indian status. It wasn’t until 1960 when First Nations people were allowed to vote while keeping their identities. 

Métis people had the same voting rights in legislation as other Canadians, but Inuit peoples were specifically excluded from voting in 1934. That changed in 1950 when they received the right to vote in federal elections.

In 2015, Indigenous voters helped put Justin Trudeau and the Liberals into power with a record turnout — 61.5 per cent of people living on First Nation reserves cast ballots. The turnout wasn’t as high in 2019.

Carrière said he’s curious as to how Cancel Canada Day will affect this year’s voter turnout among all Indigenous communities.

“There’s more people on the front lines — activists voicing their concerns and not backing down,” he said, citing the Wet’suwet’en demonstrations as one example.

“That is a form of political participation. Whether those people vote or not, we see Indigenous peoples growing more and more active in politics.”

‘If we don’t vote, then we don’t choose’

Mary Burton is hoping people in her riding will vote, just like she has in every election she’s been eligible to. That’s why she’s hosting a candidate forum in Winnipeg North next week — a Manitoba riding with historically low voter turnout.

“Indigenous people weren’t even considered people for a very long time,” said Burton, a co-founder of Fearless R2W, an education and advocacy group in Winnipeg that focuses on child welfare, housing and poverty.

“We should be voting because they fought long and hard for that. I think it’s a right that we should not just throw away.”

Burton is from Norway House Cree Nation and said she hopes Cancel Canada Day will boost Indigenous voter turnout across the country.

“It’s a very colonial system, but it’s the only system we have right now,” she said.

“Our Indigenous systems, we’re trying to bring those back, but they’re not there yet. And I think this is the best way to actually fight and get what we want.”

Mary Burton, co-founder of Fearless R2W, says she hopes Cancel Canada Day boosts voter turnout in Indigenous communities. (John Einarson/CBC)

Burton encourages all her relations to vote if they can. And if they don’t know who to vote for, spoil the ballot, she said.

“The message I’m trying to send is I’m not comfortable with who’s running this country, but I still want to have a right to say that I voted,” she said.

“I can say you’re not doing right by me. You’re not doing right by my community. Fix it now.”

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