History of racism, exclusion colours provincial election for Indigenous Sask. residents

Many First Nations people are preparing to cast their ballots in the Saskatchewan provincial election Oct. 26, but they haven't historically always been able to do so.

Full federal, provincial voting rights not extended to First Nations people until 1960

Andrea Landry, a resident of the Poundmaker Cree Nation who teaches at First Nations University of Canada, says she has no intention of voting in next week's Saskatchewan provincial election because that system continues to oppress Indigenous people and because she is part of a sovereign First Nation. (submitted by Andrea Landry)

Many First Nations people are preparing to cast their ballots in the Saskatchewan provincial election Oct. 26, but they haven't historically always been able to do so.

The long history of racism and exclusion of First Nations people from federal and provincial elections continues to colour attitudes, according to more than a dozen academics, political leaders and other Indigenous people interviewed by CBC News.

Andrea Landry, who teaches at First Nations University of Canada and lives on the Poundmaker Cree Nation, said she won't be voting provincially.

Landry said she has no interest in participating in a system that continues to oppress Indigenous people and continues to treat First Nations as wards of the state.

"We're our own sovereign nation, so if I voted in Canada's or the provincial election, it would be like a Canadian citizen voting in American elections. It just doesn't make sense. Based on the reality that we are our own sovereign nation, I'm not a Canadian," Landry said.

Others, such as Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron, agree First Nations are sovereign and continue to face injustice, but are encouraging all First Nations people to vote in the provincial election.

"We can make a big difference. It's just a matter of getting out there and voting. I strongly believe, we strongly believe, it's going to happen," Cameron said.

Real Carriere, a University of Manitoba professor who grew up on the family trap line near Cumberland House, Sask., said he didn't used to vote in provincial elections, but that he now sees the need for Indigenous people to be heard on issues affecting them. (Submitted by Réal Carrière)

When the province of Saskatchewan was created in 1905, the numbered treaties were already decades old.

According to Cameron and others, First Nations leaders believed they were agreeing to share the land and resources, but Crown officials saw it differently. To them, First Nations people were viewed as ward of the state under their control.

First Nations people were placed on reserves. Large gatherings were banned, particularly for spiritual practices. First Nations people required special permission to leave the reserve or sell their produce. Promises to supply farm implements or emergency food rations were often broken.

Almost all First Nations people were banned from voting.

The thousands of First Nations soldiers who served in the First and Second World Wars were allowed to vote, but only while they were overseas. Federal laws also stated any First Nations person who became a lawyer, doctor, priest or university graduate was also automatically enfranchised.

There was only one other way under the federal Indian Act for First Nations people to vote in federal or provincial elections. They had to renounce their treaty rights and membership in their First Nation, stripping of them of their "Indian status."

They then had to go through a three-year trial period, where their character and morals were under constant scrutiny.

They were called Probationary Indians.

If the government agents accepted them, they could vote. But for several decades,  only 250 First Nations people across all of Canada were accepted, said Leslie Jacobs, research chair in human rights and access to justice at York University.

In 1920, federal agents began to aggressively recruit Probationary Indians, but protests from First Nations leaders led to abandonment of this initiative two years later, he said.

"Thankfully our leaders of the day stood by our inherent and treaty rights, no matter what," Cameron said.

Indigenous women had even fewer rights. Their status was automatically tied to that of their husbands, a situation that affected these and other rights until 1985.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker standing with Chief Matthias Joe and three other members of the Capilano Indian Band around the time of the 1958 election. Two years later, Diefenbaker guarantee First Nations people the right to vote without losing their First Nations membership. (University of Saskatchewan archives)

In the late-1940s, First Nations veterans returning from the Second World War pressed for changes. A federal committee recommended allowing all First Nations adults to vote without losing their status.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his ministers worried about the "substantial concentrations of Indians" in ridings such as Meadow Lake and Athabasca and the effect it could have on voting, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Nothing changed until 1960, when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, representing a heavily Indigenous riding in Prince Albert, Sask., guaranteed First Nations people the vote without fear of losing their status.

Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas followed shortly after with similar provincial legislation.

Jacobs said that even though First Nations people can now all vote, this history has caused divides that continue today.

"Well, certainly there is a consequence of that historical legacy, that legacy of theft. There is alienation around this system," Jacobs said.

Some like Landry want nothing to do with the provincial election.

Others like Cameron echo her anger over the colonial policies and racism, but say they will be voting Oct. 26.

First Nations University history Professor Blair Stonechild said that like it or not, the provincial government has a big influence on the lives of Indigenous people. That includes issues from child welfare to resource development.

"You know, those lines are blurring, and there are areas in which First Nations have to interact with the provincial government. And of course, more and more are living off reserve, so that means we do have something at stake, I guess you might say, in terms of voting in provincial elections," Stonechild said.

Real Carriere, who grew up on the family trap line in northern Saskatchewan's Cumberland Delta, said he didn't used to vote, but that a proposed provincial irrigation project that threatens the Delta wildlife and people is just one reason Indigenous people must be heard.

"For me it felt like participating means you're surrendering our sovereignty," said Carriere, now a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba.

"But I see [now] you have to have a relationship with the provincial government whether you want to or not."

Others still aren't sure if they'll vote.

Marcel Petit, who works with a co-operative youth program in Saskatoon's core neighbourhoods, said his views are partly shaped by the shameful history, but also by what he's seen during his own lifetime.

He said Indigenous people still occupy the lowest rungs of Canadian society and are still fighting rampant racism, poverty and suicide.

Petit said he likely will vote, but he's losing hope.

"I remember when I first started voted in any election. I was so excited. I was so happy because I believed in democracy and I believed in our government and I believed that my vote could make change. That was 30-some years ago. Now here I am, I'm over 50. I started looking back and wondering 'Did my vote really matter?'" Petit said.

"I feel democracy is such a lie, such a line people use here and there, but does it really work? To me, the whole system is broken and it's just awful. I've tried hard not to become cynical, but it's hard not to."


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.