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Electoral Insight – Aboriginal Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – November 2003

The Alienation of Nation: Understanding Aboriginal Electoral Participation

The Alienation of Nation: Understanding Aboriginal Electoral Participation

Kiera L. Ladner
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Western Ontario

Before the 1993 extension of the special ballot to anyone unable to vote at a polling station, making voting accessible to Aboriginal and other electors throughout Canada's vast and sparsely populated northern regions often required extensive travel by election officials.

The topic of Aboriginal electoral participation is extremely complex and multi-faceted, for there are innumerable factors that influence electoral participation rates among both individuals and collectivities. This complexity is heightened by the lack of reliable data on Aboriginal participation rates in federal and provincial elections and the lack of longitudinal studies in this area. The shortage of information can be attributed in part to the virtual absence of electoral districts where Aboriginal people represent the majority of voters. Moreover, the data collected from the 296 polling stations that are located on reserves (see below) could be construed as unreliable due to the relatively small number of such polling stations and the refusal of some First Nations (such as Akwesasne) to allow polling stations on their reserves.

While rates of participation cannot be determined with absolute accuracy, it is certain that the rate of electoral participation among Aboriginal peoples is, on average, considerably lower than among the general Canadian public. For instance, while according to the Chief of Akwesasne "only one Akwesasne [Mohawk] person has ever voted in a Canadian election,"Footnote 1 in Hobemma (Plains Cree), the typical rate of participation prior to 1991 was 12.5 percent.Footnote 2 According to research carried out at Elections Canada, rates of participation in the 2000 federal election ranged from 35.3 percent in Quebec to 66.9 percent in Prince Edward Island.Footnote 3

Acknowledging that turnout varies considerably among reserves, nations and urban areas, and that participation is situational (it varies significantly, depending on the election and level of government), several questions must be asked. Why do so many Aboriginal people not vote? What, if anything, can be done to increase the participation of Aboriginal people in Canadian electoral politics?

This article begins to address these questions by focusing on the two primary reasons alienation and nation why Aboriginal people do not vote. It also suggests possible measures that could alleviate these causes of electoral dispossession. Specifically, I argue that electoral dispossession is the result of both the alienation of Aboriginal people from the Canadian political system and the discourses of nationalism and rights that permeate Aboriginal communities. The existence of these two factors highlights the need to address the recognition and participation of Aboriginal nations. While more research is necessary, my initial reflections are grounded in the Indigenous world and are based on my continued interaction with and research on the "traditional" and more radical elements of numerous Aboriginal communities.

Alienation and electoral participation

Many Aboriginal people meet together at powwows. The singing and dancing, and sharing of art and food are a celebration of their cultures and rich heritage. The regalia worn by the dancers evolve over time to reflect a vibrant and changing way of life.

Typically, lack of participation in electoral politics by a community of interest or minority is attributed to a lack of faith in the political system, a sense of alienation from the electoral system and political processes, feelings of exclusion, the existence of structural barriers within electoral politics that hinder participation, a perceived lack of effectiveness, the non-affirmation of group difference by and within electoral politics, and the virtual lack of a group's presence or representation in electoral politics (and in politics generally).Footnote 4 At first glance, it seems as though the literature of democratic theory may be correct in its depiction of factors that contribute to low rates of electoral participation among specific communities of interest. Voter apathy, alienation, feelings of exclusion and perceptions of a lack of effectiveness are dramatically and positively affected by the inclusion of a group in the electoral process (as candidates and in platforms).

A group's electoral participation generally increases with increased participation in political parties and the inclusion of its interests in party platforms and/or the predominant campaign issues.Footnote 5 Accordingly, would it not be possible to increase voter turnout among Aboriginal peoples by increasing their participation in political parties, and specifically by creating greater opportunities for both the nomination of Aboriginal candidates and increased Aboriginal involvement in party policy and decision making?

It appears that it would be possible to increase the rate of electoral participation by increasing Aboriginal involvement in Canadian politics (generally). But increasing and sustaining the involvement of Aboriginal people and issues in party politics may not be a very effective strategy. Given that political parties are seeking to maximize public appeal and voter support, there is likely very little opportunity for Aboriginal people to capture nominations and/or the attention of political parties in areas where they do not constitute a significant percentage of voters. This poses a serious problem, since the Aboriginal population is relatively small, as well as being fragmented and scattered throughout Canada. At the federal level, the absence of a significant concentrated population cannot readily be overcome; there are few areas where electoral districts exist or could be established in which Aboriginal people would constitute a significant enough percentage of the electorate to wield actual influence in electoral politics.

Even in situations where Aboriginal people constitute a significant percentage of electors, it may be very difficult to increase their presence in electoral politics as candidates and, most importantly, as voters. As Stasiulis and Abu-Laban point out in their discussion of the representation and participation of ethnic and racial minorities in electoral politics, structural and organizational barriers impede participation in mainstream party politics, thus ensuring the continued alienation of voters from such groups.Footnote 6 I would argue that this has also been the case for Aboriginal people. In the past and in a variety of elections (at all levels of government), for reasons including maximizing electoral support, many parties have chosen to rely on the alienation of Aboriginal voters. However, while some candidates and political parties have ignored the Aboriginal community and banked on their continued alienation and low levels of participation to win elections, others have attempted to secure victory by creating alienation and splitting the Aboriginal vote. For instance, during the 1995 provincial election, members of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party helped to create and financially support the Independent Native Voice party in several constituencies, thus disrupting the NDP campaign.Footnote 7

In light of the lack of a critical mass, a radical transformation is required. Despite the fact that Aboriginal people have been able to vote federally since 1960, and that Aboriginal cultures and communities are extremely political, Aboriginal people fail to see themselves in the political process or to feel included and respected as both individuals and collectivities. By and large, Aboriginal people continue to see the Canadian political system as an instrument of their domination and oppression. They see themselves as distinct from other Canadians and as belonging to "nations within"; and as nations that are not represented "within". It is interesting to note that this sentiment remains constant even when there is an Aboriginal candidate and widespread community participation in an election. The collectivity may feel unrepresented, and candidates may feel that they are unable to represent their community due to the constraints of party politics and the existing political system. As a former Aboriginal MP once confided, neither (s)he nor her/his people were represented in Parliament; a sentiment that may have contributed to the community's backlash and the widespread belief that (s)he had sold out and had failed to act as a member of their Aboriginal nation (having become a "Canadian").

As historian Iris Marion Young and other progressive theorists of democracy have argued, ignoring group differences has oppressive consequences. If one is to encourage participation without further oppressing and dominating a group, one must engage in democratic pluralism or the politics of difference that "acknowledges and affirms the public and political significance of social group difference as a means of insuring the participation and inclusion of everyone in social and political institutions ... [without forcing individuals and groups] to assimilate to dominant norms and the abandonment of group affiliation and culture."Footnote 8

While most of the existing literature on Aboriginal electoral participation does not engage this issue from the vantage of radical democratic pluralism, much of it agrees with Young's assertion that the political system needs to recognize and affirm difference (using differentiated group representation) in order to encourage Aboriginal voting.Footnote 9 In fact, Aboriginal electoral districts were recommended by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing and its Committee for Aboriginal Electoral Reform as a means of remedying the structural inequalities that impede Aboriginal participation (as candidates and as voters) in the traditional electoral system.Footnote 10

There is no doubt that particularistic representation (representation using either affirmative redistricting or guaranteed seats) would affect Aboriginal electoral participation (as candidates and voters), as it would begin to address the issues of inclusion (individual and collective), representation, alienation and effectiveness. Still, one has to ask how Aboriginal voters would react to such a system. Would the creation of a system of particularistic representation fully address the roots of electoral alienation? Would the suggested increase in voter participation be measurable and sustainable? Would guaranteed representation have any effect on existing national (read: Indigenous Nation), regional and reserve/urban variations in rates of Aboriginal electoral participation?

The nation and electoral participation

To my mind, obtaining measurable and sustainable Aboriginal participation in every community is not a sure bet. The reason is simple: particularistic representation would not address all of the issues resulting in the alienation of Aboriginal individuals and nations from the Canadian political system. Aboriginal people are not simply a community of interest or a minority group that feels alienated from the political process. They form "nations within": nations with distinct political cultures, political systems, political traditions, histories of colonization, relationships with other nations (such as Canada), and visions as to how the relationship between their nations and Canada should be structured and the manner in which each nation should participate in the affairs of the other.

As each Aboriginal collectivity has its own political traditions and its own vision of a just relationship with Canada, electoral participation varies substantially, as does the manner in which individuals and collectivities rationalize their participation (or lack thereof) in Canadian politics. To further complicate matters, participation rates (and the rationalization thereof) vary, especially when comparing nationalists and traditionally minded individuals who are grounded in their communities with individuals who have few ties to their nation and its history, political traditions and sense of nationalism.

I would argue that a majority of Aboriginal people with strong ties to their communities and their history, traditions and language have explicitly decided not to participate in Canadian elections. Further, as Indigenous nationalisms gather strength and Indigenous peoples increasingly decide to cast off the shackles of dependency and to rebuild their independence, levels of participation will decrease rather than increase. This lack of participation, though often attributed to alienation from political processes and the issues associated with colonization, should be thought of as resulting from Indigenous nationalisms, treaties and the explicit decisions of both individuals and communities. For instance, a leading Anishnaabe scholar recently explained this widespread rationalization of non-participation as follows: "I don't vote in elections in France. I don't vote in elections in Ethiopia. Why would I vote in Canada? They are all foreign nations."Footnote 11 In short, at issue is a matter of contested citizenship wherein many Aboriginal peoples (individuals and nations) dispute their citizenship on the grounds that they are citizens of Indigenous nations.

What is interesting is that this issue of contested citizenship remains fairly widespread, even in communities where members have engaged in electoral politics (as candidates and/or voters). This was evident in a conversation that I had with a Maliseet scholar following the election of T. J. Burke (the first Aboriginal person to be elected to a legislative assembly in the Atlantic provinces) to the New Brunswick legislature in 2003. Even though the community had "one of its own" running in the election and generally supported the individual, there was a backlash against both the candidate and those who voted for him on the basis that they had failed to live as members of their nation. To that end, instead of celebrating the electoral success, much of the community mourned the continued colonization of the Maliseet nation. It is interesting to note that while members of the Maliseet nation mourned electoral participation because of contested citizenship, members of other nations have advocated increased electoral participation based on their contested citizenship. For instance, during the last federal election several nations (including the Plains Cree) promoted strategic participation (block voting) as an acceptable means of affirming and defending their nationhood and their Aboriginal and treaty rights from the Alliance party. In fact, in many communities, electoral participation was promoted as being compatible with, and even beneficial for, nationhood. It was presented as compatible, at least insofar as that specific election was concerned, with voting as nations, for as nations they were struggling to defend themselves from the political agendas of certain parties.

Indigenous nationalisms are growing stronger and citizenship is increasingly being contested. Consequently, even if a system of guaranteed representation were created, it would be extremely difficult to affect positively the rates of electoral participation among Aboriginal people. This is particularly true in situations where an Aboriginal nation's contested citizenship is predicated on a treaty. For the most part, treaties (both peace and friendship and so-called land cession/sharing treaties) have institutionalized a nation-to-nation relationship that affirmed the continued sovereignty of each nation (colonial and Indigenous) and guaranteed a relationship of non-interference whereby neither nation would interfere with the affairs of the other, except in certain, mutually agreed areas of co-sovereignty or co-operation.Footnote 12 Thus, for many treaty peoples, voting in Canadian elections entails both participating in an alien system and engaging in an act (interfering with the business of another nation) their nation promised it would never do.

The Web site of the National Conference of State Legislatures at provides more information about the history of tribal delegates in the state of Maine.

Given this reality, it appears as though increasing Aboriginal participation in Canadian elections is not only an enormous obstacle, but an insurmountable one at that. But is increasing participation among Aboriginal peoples (particularly those engaged in nation (re)building) an impossible task? Not necessarily. However, a simple solution does not exist. Participation and representation would have to be predicated on recognition of, and respect for, nationhood and the nation-to-nation relationships articulated in the treaties. This could readily be facilitated using a system of particularistic or guaranteed representation that provided for some semblance of national or treaty representation. Such a system of guaranteed representation is not unheard of: the state of Maine has allowed for the participation of tribal delegates (not representatives or participants in state politics), from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy nations, in their state legislature since 1820.Footnote 13 Moreover, the idea of national, tribal and/or treaty representation has been discussed several times in Canada among Aboriginal people, academics, parliamentarians and Royal Commissions.Footnote 14 In fact, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples even went so far as to recommend the creation of an Aboriginal Parliament.Footnote 15

Is it possible that a system of particularistic representation based on the representation of nations and/or treaties would facilitate a sustained increase in electoral participation among Aboriginal people? Is it really necessary to base representation on nationhood? Is it necessary to transform Canada or to incorporate the nations within? While it is impossible to tackle these questions here, I would argue, with absolute certainty, that national and/or treaty representation would increase Aboriginal participation in electoral politics. Providing for such representation would enable Aboriginal people to participate in Canadian electoral politics as nations and to vote as, and for, citizens of their nations.Footnote 16 A system of guaranteed representation could liberate Aboriginal people from the forces of assimilation, as individuals would not be forced to participate in the alien system as "Canadians". Instead, they could participate in electoral politics as members of their nations and in a manner that could be designed to incorporate Aboriginal peoples as "nations within". I would argue that enabling nation-based participation in electoral politics would address the two primary causes of electoral dispossession among Aboriginal people. It would do so by guaranteeing the inclusion of Aboriginal peoples as candidates and actors in electoral politics. Moreover, it would enable Aboriginal people to participate (as voters, as candidates and in debate on issues) as members of nations nations that could be incorporated through a system of delegates who represent their nations in Canadian politics but who do not engage in or interfere with the operations of the Canadian system (consistent with treaty rights and obligations).

To conclude, as has been articulated by countless generations of Aboriginal peoples and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, politicians, bureaucrats and scholars, the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canada is in desperate need of renewal. A new relationship based on an affirmation of nationhood needs to be forged and creatively facilitated. This could be done through the creation of a system of guaranteed representation based on nations and/or treaties. Such a system would provide an opportunity to incorporate Aboriginal peoples as "nations within" by increasing their participation as nations and individuals through inclusion as voters and candidates, and by integrating their issues into electoral politics. This would necessarily improve participation, because it would begin to address the implementation of the treaty relationship and address the roots of Aboriginal alienation (nationhood), as well as providing an opportunity for Aboriginal people to participate in Canadian politics as nations without interfering in Canadian elections or in matters of no concern to the Aboriginal nation. It would also provide a means for Aboriginal nations to address issues of mutual concern with Canadians. As has been demonstrated in Maine, where national delegates represent their nations in discussions in areas of tribal or mutual concern but do not vote (as they are not part of the state government), the transformation of the political system need not be extreme to achieve transformative results. It simply needs to be inclusive and to include the "nations within" as nations.


Footnote 1 Michael Mitchell, "Akwesasne: An Unbroken Assertion of Sovereignty" in Bruce Richardson, ed., Drum Beat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country (Toronto: Summerhill Press, 1989), p. 111.

Footnote 2 Roger Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population: An Assessment of Aboriginal Electoral Districts" in Robert A. Milen, ed., Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada, Vol. 9 of the Report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991), p. 159. It is interesting to note that the rate of participation in Hobemma peaked at 55 percent in 1988 when Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer from the community, was elected.

Footnote 3 Daniel Guérin, "Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Federal Elections: Trends and Implications," in this issue of Electoral Insight. Data is based on turnout rates at the 296 polling stations located on First Nations reserves.

Footnote 4 See Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters (Ottawa: Elections Canada, March 2003).

Footnote 5 The inclusion of Aboriginal people and issues in party politics need not be positive to have an impact on voter participation. For example, in the last election the position of the Alliance party on Aboriginal issues caused many communities to promote voting against Alliance candidates.

Footnote 6 Daiva Stasiulus and Yasmeen Abu-Laban, "Unequal Relations and the Struggle for Equality: Race and Ethnicity in Canadian Politics" in Michael Wittington and Glen Williams, eds., Canadian Politics in the 21st Century (Scarborough: Nelson, 2000), pp. 327353.

Footnote 7 Doug Smith, As Many Liars (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2003).

Footnote 8 Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1990), p. 168.

Footnote 9 For example, see: Augie Fleras, "Aboriginal Electoral Districts for Canada: Lessons from New Zealand" in Milen, ed., Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada, pp. 365. It should be noted that several scholars, while recognizing that particularistic representation may enhance Aboriginal participation, oppose the creation of differentiated representation. For example, see: David Small, "Enhancing Aboriginal Representation Within the Existing System of Redistricting" in David Small, ed., Vol. 11 of the Research Studies, Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Drawing the Map: Equality and Efficacy of the Vote in Canadian Electoral Boundary Reform (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), pp. 307348.

Footnote 10 Committee for Aboriginal Electoral Reform, "The Path to Electoral Equality" in Report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Vol. 4, pp. 228296. Also "Equality and Efficacy of the Vote" in Reforming Electoral Democracy, Vol. 1 of the Report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, pp. 186189.

Footnote 11 Leanne Simpson, personal correspondence, August 22, 2003.

Footnote 12 James Youngblood Henderson, "Empowering Treaty Federalism" in Saskatchewan Law Review Vol. 58 (1994), pp. 241332.

Footnote 13 For a brief discussion of the history of tribal delegates in Maine, and discussions in Wisconsin and South Dakota pertaining to the adoption of a similar system, see:

Footnote 14 Kiera L. Ladner, "Treaty Seven and Guaranteed Representation: How Treaty Rights Can Evolve into Parliamentary Seats" in Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 17, Issue 2 (1997), pp. 85102.

Footnote 15 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Vol. 2 (Ottawa: Canada Communication Group, 1996).

Footnote 16 Bedford and Pobihushchy, in an examination of Aboriginal participation in federal, provincial and band elections, note that voter turnout among Aboriginal people tends to be considerably higher at the local or band level. David Bedford and Sidney Pobihushchy, "On-Reserve Status Indian Voter Participation in the Maritimes," Canadian Journal of Native Studies Vol. 15, Issue 2 (1995), pp. 255278.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.