Why are some Indigenous people reluctant to vote in federal elections?

Many Indigenous people view themselves as members of sovereign nations alongside Canada — so some people, Kakinoosit said, might feel uncomfortable participating in a country’s electoral system of which they aren’t a part.
Nipâwi Kakinoosit isn't planning on voting in the 2019 federal election — but that doesn't mean he's totally against voting, either. (Wil Fundal/CBC)

Nipâwi Kakinoosit has voted federally before — but he won't be voting in the 2019 election.

Kakinoosit, who's from Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta, feels no responsibility to vote in Canada's electoral system as a direct descendant of one of the Treaty 8 signatories.

Like many Indigenous people, Kakinoosit views Indigenous nations as sovereign within Canada. 

"As an Indigenous nationalist, it is contradictory to our position of Indigenous people having complete control over the social, economic, environmental, cultural and political aspects of our lives," Kakinoosit said. "We're under no obligation whatsoever to participate."

But Kakinoosit did vote in a Canadian election once, for the federal NDP in 2011. It was a meeting with then-leader Jack Layton that convinced him to participate. He asked Layton whether his rhetoric was sincere or whether it was a ploy to win over the Indigenous vote. 

Layton told Kakinoosit that he truly cared, and he believed him. Since then, Kakinoosit hasn't felt any of the leaders have been sincere/complete in their proposals to Indigenous people. 

Still hopeful

There are many reasons why Indigenous people choose not to vote, Kakinoosit said. Viewing Indigenous nations as sovereign and distinct, Indigenous people might feel uncomfortable participating in Canada's electoral system.

He also said most Indigenous communities have their own governing systems — and by voting in Canada's electoral system, it could delegitimize their own.

And often, Kakinoosit said, it's just a matter of not feeling like there's any one party or candidate that represents Indigenous people.

However, Kakinoosit also recognizes the reasons why Indigenous people feel inspired to vote. 

"A lot of them still have hope in the system and in the sincerity and humanity of the Canadian settler state," Kakinoosit said, recognizing mass mobilization of Indigenous people can make a real difference in some potential swing ridings.

Plus, whether they like it or not, Indigenous people are still affected by who takes office, he said.

No obligation to vote

Politicians who are elected impact Indigenous people, but that doesn't place an obligation on them to vote, Kakinoosit said.

Though he's heard criticism that it could mean Indigenous concerns will be taken less seriously, he doesn't agree.

"Regardless of whether or not we do participate, it doesn't negate the fiduciary obligations that the Crown owes the Indigenous nations," Kakinoosit said.

Kakinoosit would consider voting federally again if he felt a party or candidate would recognize complete sovereignty among Indigenous nations. 

For those Indigenous people who are undecided on whether to vote this election, Kakinoosit suggested looking at the candidates in their riding and their respective party's platform. Talk to family, friends, and elders about what concerns them and whether a particular candidate might improve that situation. 

If the person can reconcile with participating in the Canadian system and feel like they're making a difference, then Kakinoosit says to go out and vote.

"Nobody, not even other Indigenous people, [should] tell other Indigenous people what to do," he said.