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Diefenbaker and the Indigenous vote

The Story

"I felt it was so unjust that they didn't have the vote," says John Diefenbaker. "I brought it about as soon as I could after becoming prime minister." Diefenbaker is talking about Aboriginal Canadians, who couldn't vote in Canadian elections without giving up their treaty rights until 1960. In this clip, we see Diefenbaker in a ceremonial headdress, and hear him discuss the importance of involving Indigenous Canadians in politics.

Medium: Television
Program: The Tenth Decade
Broadcast Date: Nov. 10, 1971
Guests: John Diefenbaker, Alvin Hamilton
Duration: 0:49

Did You know?

• Indigenous people - known largely as "Indians" at the time - were actually given the right to vote at Confederation in 1867, but it was conditional. They had to give up their treaty rights and Indian status in order to get the vote. Very few natives were willing to give up their status and treaty rights, however, just to vote in a political system that was still very alien to them.

• Giving up their status and treaty rights meant they had to give up their claims to land and resources, as well as tax exemptions, as specified in the original treaties negotiated between First Nations and the Canadian federal government between 1871 and 1921.

• As was the case with Chinese Canadians, a number of Indigenous Canadians served in the Second World War. This led many Canadians to believe it was time to grant them all the vote with no strings attached. In 1948, a parliamentary committee recommended that all "status Indians" be given the vote, but this didn't occur until Prime Minister John Diefenbaker pushed for it 1960.

• Diefenbaker had long been dedicated to the idea of giving status Indians the right to vote federally. In One Canada, Diefenbaker's memoirs written in the mid-'70s, he wrote about meeting many Indians as a child. As a result of this contact, he said, he committed himself to one day getting them the right to vote.

• Diefenbaker's government granted status Indians the right to vote (without having to give up their treaty rights) on March 10, 1960.

• As of 1960, there were no remaining voting rights restrictions based on race or religion in Canada.

• After Indigenous people in Canada got the vote, there was still some question among non-Aboriginal Canadians over whether Aboriginal Canadians really wanted the vote. In a 1967 CBC Radio report, Edmonton Journal writer John Barr comments on how "Alberta Indians" were being dragged into the upcoming provincial election. "The new Indian voter is the reluctant dragon of Alberta politics," he said.

• In the 2000 federal election, the turnout for Aboriginal voters on reserves was less than 50 per cent. By comparison, the overall Canadian voter turnout was 61.2 per cent. A 2004 CBC online report described several prevailing theories on why Indigenous voter turnout tends to be low. One is that a larger proportion of Aboriginal Canadians are poverty-stricken or lack post-secondary education. Also, in the eyes of many Aboriginal Canadians, First Nations concerns aren't a big enough focus of Canadian politicians' campaigns.


Voting in Canada: How a Privilege Became a Right more