Political candidates who are counting on support from indigenous people are often told they usually don't vote.

There is no data that can absolutely confirm this adage but numerous studies indicate the voter turnout rate in federal elections for First Nations people is generally lower than the national average, sometimes by a substantial percentage.

The Assembly of First Nations claims that the First Nations vote could affect the outcome in at least 51 ridings in Canada and could make the difference between electing a majority or a minority government. If this could provide First Nations with influence in a balance of power situation, they are paying a huge price by not participating in the political process in numbers their population should warrant.

It is easy and simplistic to claim First Nations people are solely responsible for this loss of political power and the benefits it may bring because of their own ignorance or apathy.

That kind of stereotyping is unfair because Canadian history and a much more complicated situation facing indigenous voters have combined to create a myriad of valid reasons for the relatively low turnout of native voters.  

But it remains a costly problem which needs to be overcome.

It is quite commonly known that "Indians", as they were called half a century ago, were not allowed to vote until July 1, 1960. Actually, they could vote, but they had to become "disenfranchised" first, which meant giving up their special Treaty status.

And so it became the common practice that aboriginal people did not take part in "white man's voting" in the 30 or so federal elections which were held prior to 1960.

Not only was apathy and indifference passed on from generation to generation, so was the anger and mistrust that mainstream elections created by maintaining and enforcing the Indian Act which was implemented by the federal government's Department of Indian Affairs. More simply, why would the people of one sovereign nation be voting in another nation's elections?

On the other hand, there were numerous government policies and accounts in the media that claimed because Indians were kept isolated on impoverished reserves, the Canadian public considered them to be "uncivilized", uneducated and unworthy wards of the state who were not qualified to vote, or participate in many other so-called civilized activities.

They had a lot of catching up to do to integrate, much less assimilate, as the governments of Canada wanted them to do, and there remain some who have not even bothered with any of it to this day.

This is not to say that indigenous people weren't politically active. Every two years, many First Nations hold elections for chief and council. This is their politics. It is a completely separate system from electing city councillors, MLAs and MPs, but often substitutes and sucks up scant energy which can be applied to understanding and participating in mainstream politics.

Many indigenous people refuse to vote in their own elections because they are a creature of the government, not their own traditions. First Nations people often do not want to be counted in a ballot box or on a census form because the provincial government uses that data to collect per capita grants on their behalf from the federal government.

And voting is not the only method of political expression. The most well-known methods indigenous people have used to participate in the political process with varying degrees of success have been demonstrations and protests like road and railway blockades.

Idle No More was most effective protesting legislation in omnibus bills by holding mildly disruptive round dances and distributing literature which reasonably explained their cause

Perhaps the aboriginal electoral process leading to local chiefs, territorial and provincial grand chiefs and a national chief is good enough. First Nations could just rely on the leaders they elect through their own political process to lobby and get the federal government to live up to the Treaties.

Some indigenous leaders say we need a new and different electoral system, perhaps something like they have in New Zealand where a certain number of seats are set aside for the indigenous Maori people.

In the end, it seems to come full circle, and First Nations people need to recognize how important it is to vote in a federal election, just like 61 per cent (on average) of the rest of the population does.  

That could be boosted by some important, high profile issue that brings out the native vote, like free trade or the GST or conscription has done for the general population in the past.

As they say, "It doesn't matter how you vote, just be sure to vote."

In the meantime, indigenous Liberal candidate for Winnipeg Centre, Robert-Falcon Ouelette, has come up with a way of looking at it all that seems to combine the best of both worlds.

"This election is my Idle No More," Ouelette says. 

Even if voting is much more complicated for indigenous voters, you cannot win if you do not play.

There is nothing to win when First Nations remain nations within but not represented within.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer and the editor of Grassroots News