To vote or not to vote? Aboriginal people in Quebec to decide

Perhaps the least excited electors are the aboriginal people of the North, even though this election could ultimately have enormous impact on them and their communities.

An Innu from the Lac Saint-Jean area of Quebec weighs in on the debate

A sign in Quebec City pointing voters to the nearest polling station. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

To vote or not to vote - that is the question for many Quebecers caught up in the election. 

Perhaps the least excited electors are the aboriginal people of the North, even though this election could ultimately have enormous impact on them and their communities.

Voter turnout in northern Quebec is traditionally the lowest in the province. Just 41.6 per cent of eligible voters in the riding of Ungava cast ballots in 2012, for example.

I am an Innu from Lac Saint-Jean area of Quebec and I live in Montreal. I have a voice. To vote is a privilege, they say.

There are so many things to consider for aboriginal people in cities and in Northern communities. But the more I listen to the debates, read the analysis in the media and look into the party platforms, the less I see of us in their plans.
More than 1 million Quebecers cast advance vote ballots. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
The issue of low turnout among aboriginal voters was examined in a study done for Elections Canada in 2011. The report cited many reasons but two in particular jumped out at me.

One was the friction between the drive for aboriginal self-determination and the idea of joining a federal or provincial process of elections.

The other was the notion of social exclusion, of alienation.

As the report states, existing institutions are seen as defending the interests of non-aboriginal people only.

The Canadian government and its ministries are perceived as tools of a systemic discrimination through policies. I’ve heard from many Aboriginal leaders that they feel the same is also true of provincial governments.

Maybe the cynical attitude among some Aboriginal voters has to do more with the selective historical amnesia of Canadians and Quebecers regarding their relationship with First Peoples.

It could also be due to the fact that First Peoples’ political power does not reside in the electoral process. It is rooted elsewhere: in the Canadian Constitution, the Supreme Court, lobby groups and, sometimes, barricades.

Natives and Inuit represent fewer than one per cent of Quebec’s population of eight million citizens.
People in kuujjuaq, Que., protest evictions and high rents outside the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau on Thursday.
But democracy needs to be more than a majority deciding for a minority when it comes to First Peoples.

As author James Bovard said: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”

Election after election, First Peoples’ priorities fall between the cracks.

Only two parties out of the four main ones even mention native people in their platform: Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire.

Both are separatist parties arguing over a territory that many say is not wholly theirs, in light of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, restated by the Canadian Constitution in 1982. 

Quebec Solidaire is unlikely to win this election. The Parti Quebecois states simply it will  pursue discussions with First Nations, among others. It also want to put forward a Northern Plan (Le Nord pour tous), which is aimed at economic development and natural resources.

For many Inuit, the main concerns are housing, social services and health issues in the North. But these issues are simply not mentioned.

The Liberals and Coalition Avenir Quebec do not even mention aboriginal people directly in their platforms.

But they have development plans in mind for forestry and mining; at the end of the day, they might talk to the people living in the land.

That would be easier going, of course, with nations that signed treaties (Crees and Inuit), but those without might again have to wait.
Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec and Labrador says First Nations have the right to determine their own future and aren't bound to the result of another referendum vote. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
The one subject that really engages aboriginal voters is the idea of Quebec separation.

Ghislain Picard, vice-chief at the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, came out early in the campaign to remind the parties that aboriginal people will decide their own place in Canada.

In a letter published by Le Devoir, Picard wrote that, in 1995, the Crees and the Innu held their own referendums.

A total of 77 per cent of eligible voters participated, a pretty impressive turnout.

In the final count, 95 per cent voted to stay within Canada, a total of five per cent said “yes” to separation, or maybe just spoiled their ballots.

South of Montreal, the Mohawks are also refusing to be part of a separate Quebec. Some are arguing that Quebec has no right over their land.
Residents of Akwesasne do not consider themselves as belonging to any one province, and are protective of their rights on their land, as in 2009 when they staged a protest over the arming of border guards. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC) (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC)
Nonetheless, there are several native people in Quebec who are involved in a separatist movement.

Maïte Saganash, daughter of MP Roméo Saganash (NDP), a Cree from Waswanipi in Quebec, is a member of the Parti Québécois; as is former Abenaki member of the National Assembly from Abitibi, Alexi Wawanoloath. Bernard Cleary, an Innu from Mashteuiatsh, was with the Bloc Québécois.

Some of the Natives who are for separation argue that a democratic system with proportional representation would be best.

They envision an assembly of elected representatives and a northern assembly with native and non-native representation.

They also point out that Canada created the 1876 Indian Act, which put in place “Indian reserves” and made them dependant on the state. 

In Quebec, only Inuit, Crees and Naskapis are no longer under the Indian Act.

The vast majority of aboriginal people still are. 

But to emerge from that reserve system and from a history of colonization, First Peoples need an economy, they need education, houses, health services and much more.

To get out of a system of dependency, they also need a land base for their people. They need territory.

The idea of proportional representation  can seem attractive, but it is complicated with treaties, self-determination, self-government and aboriginal rights.

There is no simple answer.

To participate in these elections we have to think about our personal values, our extended family, our friends – both native and non-native.

Some of us may choose not to vote because we feel our concerns are not seriously dealt with in any of the party plans.

That would be a loss for democracy because who ever wins the election might not find the need to properly serve Quebec’s First People.


Since 2007, Caroline Nepton Hotte has hosted Boréal hebdo, a French-language program about the North, airing on CBC North radio. She also worked on the award-winning 8th Fire television series as a field producer. She is a member of the community of Mashteuiatsh, near Lac Saint-Jean, Que.