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I’m Ojibway, and I vote

One of my old Winnipeg connections shared this video with me via Facebook. Doug Thomas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs created it to engage Aboriginal people in the Canadian federal election campaign and encourage them to vote. It’s simple, straightforward, and honest – and hopefully, it’s effective. I already voted in the advance polls, and I hope my Aboriginal brothers and sisters across the country follow suit tomorrow on election day. As so beautifully articulated in the above piece, it’s about being counted, and most importantly, being heard.

First Nations leaders across Canada are encouraging all of us to vote. As we grow as a people, they want us to become a much more formidable presence in the Canadian political theatre. In many ridings across the country, we have the ability to sway the results. Aboriginal voter turnout is usually generally much lower than the rest of the population, but grassroots activists and leaders are trying to reverse that trend.

However, there’s been a movement afoot for years rooted in academia that urges Aboriginal Canadians NOT to vote. Intellectuals cite a variety of reasons for abstaining from the democratic process. Some say it compromises our sovereignty as nations. Others say it keeps us subservient in the traditional Canadian political hierarchy. While I have the utmost respect for some of these illustrious thinkers, I couldn’t disagree more.

This country and political system were forced upon us. We were strong-armed into signing deals that kept us subordinate and in the periphery. Today, many of our communities continue to suffer because of these old colonial ways and they’re still on a long path to healing. But excluding ourselves from the process that determines the leadership and direction of the entire system won’t solve these problems. We are a part of it, whether we like it or not, and it’s up to us to start exercising this basic democratic right. Federal leaders need to be aware of us and our potential as political juggernauts.

I vote in every election, from my rez right up to my federal riding. When you’re on the rez, It’s difficult to see how your vote will trickle down into any sort of meaningful change in your community. But as our numbers grow, and as we become more engaged in Canadian society at large, we won’t be ignored anymore. Our problems are Canada’s problems, and the only way Canada will recognize that is if we become engaged in Canada’s system.

I voted this year because I believe our people need to embrace Canadian politics and shape it to suit us. Even in cities, we’re becoming more visible. We’re emerging in many professional scopes. We need to obtain and develop the tools of Canadian democracy to carve out our own special place in it. Stepping aside will only keep us on the outside, perpetually looking in as our own rights outlined by this country deteriorate. These rights define us as a people in Canada. By voting, we’re standing up for them, and more importantly, we’re standing up for ourselves and future generations. I voted because I’m proud of who I am and I believe in the power of our people.

For a great list of ridings where the Aboriginal vote could make or break leaders, read this exceptional post by mediaINDIGENA’s Rick Harp.

Smoke Signals

This past weekend my home community of Wasauksing First Nation voted in a new Chief and Council. Members elected a new leader and a very different supporting council. I’m not going to comment on the results of this campaign in order to be fair and respectful (it’s a small rez where everyone knows everyone), but I’d like to point out the relative success of the process, particularly mail-in balloting for off-reserve members. I don’t know what percentage of the votes were mailed in and I’m not sure if those figures will be public, but the fact that members who live in urban and distant settings are continually engaged in the process is an ongoing victory.

I was fortunate to be raised in my community surrounded by family, friends, and an emerging Anishinaabe cultural renaissance. I left the rez to pursue post-secondary education and a career, as did many of my relatives and peers. I haven’t been able to return to live there (yet) because my career path isn’t conducive to that (at the moment). But I go home regularly to visit and I still feel part of it. Wasauksing has made me who I am today and I love it with all my heart. But at the end of the day I am an “Urban Indian” and there’s no denying that.

The fact is, more than half of the people who have membership in the Wasauksing band are Urban Indians. When I last checked, the stats weren’t available, but Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s community profiles used to say that Wasauksing had a total band membership of about 1000, with 400 living on the reserve. That was years ago and the numbers have certainly grown. But prior to 1999, those living off-reserve couldn’t vote in band elections. The Supreme Court of Canada’s Corbiere Ruling changed that, and the band election process continues to evolve with each subsequent election.

Fortunately, I didn’t really know off-reserve voting life prior to Corbiere. I was 20 when that ruling came down, and have been able to vote in every election since. I’ve mailed in ballots from Toronto, Akron Ohio, Winnipeg, and now Ottawa. It’s a right I’m glad I’m entitled to so far from my community, and it makes me feel proud and connected every time I drop that envelope in the mailbox. Many of us who exercise this right still care deeply about our home communities and have close ties to it. We deserve our say and we’re happy to voice it.

Wasauksing’s elections are every two years. Over the past two campaigns I’ve noticed candidates appealing directly to off-reserve voters for support via Facebook and email lists. Some of these modern smoke signals have swayed my decisions in the past on who to vote for. Modern plumes of ambition coming our way from home, hoping to draw an even bigger one back. As Canada’s Aboriginal people continue to carve out their identity across this country, this process will keep modernizing, engaging all band members living afar to strengthen our collective voice and move forward.

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