Why Play the White Man’s Game?: Reflections On Being Native and Voting in Colonial Elections

The first Indians to vote in Canada were those of the Rice Lake Band near Peterborough, Ontario

From author Taiaiake Alfred’s website:

Led by the Assembly of First Nations and Aboriginal media types, there are many people calling for First Nations men and women to vote in the upcoming federal election. All sorts of reasons and arguments are being put forward to justify the position that First Nations should, must!, become players in the Canadian electoral system. I think people who advocate this position are wrong, and that anyone who believes that it is in the interest of our people and our nations to vote in Canadian elections is deluded by the effects of their own assimilation into the mainstream. They have forgotten who they are. But rather than adding more words to the debate, I will put this piece forward, an opinion column I originally wrote for the Windspeaker newspaper and which was published in October 1999 [Blogger’s Note: posted below]. I believe the arguments I made then are still true, and trust that it will give heart to those people in all of our nations who are “keeping it real” and refusing to become white-washed imitations of Onkwehonwe, the original peoples of this land.

Alfred is a Mohawk author, consultant, and teacher of Indigenous knowledge and history. He is the author of three books, Heeding the Voices of our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto and Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. I’ve got lots of disagreements with Taiaiake, but overall I appreciate him and his work, and it is in the spirit of comradeship that I post his short essay below.

Where I come from, voting in the white man’s elections is taboo; only four people from Kahnawake voted in the last federal election (and word is that they were non-Indians living on the reserve). The reason for this taboo is clear: as Iroquois people, we do not participate in the white man’s government system because we are Rotinohshonni, not Canadian. But I have noticed a different opinion among our brothers and sisters in some other parts of Turtle Island where voting, supporting political campaigns and even running for federal or provincial offices is accepted as a good thing. I often ask myself why is it that some Indian people participate in federal and provincial elections?

It seems so clear that participating in the white man’s political system goes against the basic idea that we are nations. An Indian giving a vote to a political candidate in a Canadian election is the same thing as giving an “OK” and smiling high five to the whole system that’s been created to control us and take away our rights. If one chooses to validate their rule over us in this way, it becomes hypocritical to claim distinct nationhood as “First Nations,” treaty Indians or Indigenous peoples. One of the strongest arguments we have against the legality of the white man’s Indian Act is that we have never agreed to be subjects of that authority. Our ancestors never signed treaties of surrender, yet by participating in the white man’s politics, we are caving in and surrendering and in effect giving the Canadian government the consent it so desperately needs to justify the situation it has created. By casting a vote or taking part in Canadian elections, what Indians are really saying to Canada is “I hereby agree to be part of your system, and accept the authority of your Constitution and your laws over me.”

Aside from the contradictions on principle, as a practical matter, Indian participation in the Canadian political system makes no sense at all. Our populations are too small to matter in all but a very few federal and provincial ridings. Even with the rare election of Indian candidates, the Canadian parliamentary system’s “party discipline” rule (all members must support the party line) renders this small-scale representation meaningless anyway. Our ability to influence the political decision-making process in the normal Canadian way (by pumping money into a political party, financially supporting a candidate or flexing economic muscle in a riding) is sadly non-existent. Most often times Indians who do participate in the white man’s political system just end up getting used as tokens, political footballs, or worse, as tools in the divide-and-conquer tactics that Canadian governments still use against us. Whether it’s the Liberal Party’s co-optation of Indians through patronage appointments and pay-offs, the NDP Party’s false promises, or the Reform Party’s crass manipulation of dissenters, Indians who play political games always end up serving the white politicians rather than their own people.

So why do people do it then? I have to believe that most of the Indian people who vote in Canadian elections are not consciously betraying principles, but vote simply because they have not considered all of the implications of the act. But I suspect it is a different story for Indian leaders who get deeply involved with Canadian political parties. I may be accused of being cynical here, but let’s remember that politics is a very cynical business these days. Most Indian politicians who give their support and allegiance to Canadian political parties do so out of selfishness and greed – they possess a special hunger for money and power that drives them to knowingly betray the principles of nationhood in exchange for favours and status within the white man’s system.

If we hope to rise above dysfunctional politics imported from the white man’s system, rid our communities and organizations of corrupt government and begin to make real progress toward re-building our nations, we need to return to our traditional ways and identities. Basically, “traditional” means taking ourselves seriously, being consistent and acting with pride like true nations. As Indian people we must stop saying “OK” to the white man’s claimed authority over us and then complaining about it in loud and empty rhetoric. We need to start putting our faith in true leaders who believe in our nations and who know our traditions, and we need to stop voting for slick politicians who play the games white men play.

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Posted on April 3, 2011, in Elections & Electoralism, Indigenous Struggles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The majority of “indians” (in Canada and the US) are not ideologically First Nations or Indigenous or their respective tribal names for themselves. They are only “indians”; what this means is that they do not have a concrete sense of what it means to be a tribal nationalist–for them, their “indian” identity is wrapped up with their “Canadian” (or American) identity and their only political vehicle is a colonial one. So for them it makes perfect sense to vote within the same system that had worked so hard all these years to break down their sense of tribal identity.

    Colonial oppression is mad genius because it distorts reality and the minds of the oppressed so much so that the oppressed participate as “willing” actors in their own subjugation and oppression, and they will strenuously defend their right to do so.

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