Anniversary of Indigenous Voting Rights (1960)
You may be wondering: why am I writing about voting rights? We are not close to any elections at the municipal, provincial or federal levels.
Well, March 31 marks 61 years since most Indigenous communities living in Canada were granted the right to vote in federal elections.
Yes, you read that right. 61 years ago, or 1960. Also, most? You might be wondering what I mean by that.
Well, it’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll try my best to summarize it here. You can also click through to some of the sites I’m using for this post, and borrow some materials from our collections. I’ve shared some at the end of this post.
Before 1960, First Nations living in Canada did not have the right to vote in federal elections unless they became enfranchised.
Enfranchisement was introduced in The Indian Act, 1876. It is defined as giving up “Indian Status and band membership in return for Canadian citizenship.” Some First Nations people, who became doctors, lawyers, or priests, gained Canadian citizenship very quickly, while others had to apply and wait three years before they could vote. In exchange for the right to vote, the Indigenous person would give up their status as an “Indian” and gain Canadian citizenship. The individual could not be both.
The first phase of enfranchisement ran until 1920. In 1920, The Indian Act was amended to allow for forced enfranchisement, which lasted until at least 1951. Indigenous veterans got the right to vote in 1924.
In 1960, the Government of Canada granted status First Nations peoples the right to vote without losing their status.
For Métis and Inuit communities, the story is a bit different.
The Inuit were disqualified from voting in federal elections in 1934. They achieved the right to vote federally in 1950, but could not vote until 1962 because there were very few ballot boxes in Northern Canada.
The Métis did not have any legislation keeping them from voting – so long as they met the qualifications of general Canadians, they could vote.
Once voting was offered, there was, and continues to be hesitancy to vote in Indigenous communities. Voting means one of two things to Indigenous communities in general.
Voting means that Indigenous communities can express who they want to represent them federally, like Canadians do, while not losing status. This is called “Citizens Plus,” which was coined by the Hawthorn Committee in 1967.
Voting rights could also open the door towards losing inherent, protected rights and assimilating into Canadian cultures. This has been the goal of the Federal Government since Confederation. In 1969, a White Paper was issued, which called for Indigenous communities to receive the same treatment as the average Canadian citizen with no additional rights.
For all Indigenous communities – there is a choice to vote or not vote. Regardless of which choice is made, it is a valid one.
Want to learn more about Indigenous voting history and the Indian Act? I've gathered a few resources below to share. All summaries below resources are pulled from the Toronto Public Library website. If an author of the shared resource is Indigenous, their nation will be next to their name.
Available Online Only
If you're interested in reading newspaper articles about Indigenous peoples gaining the right to vote, you can explore our online collections for free using either your TPL card or your Digital Access Card. Don't have one? No worries! You can sign up for free.
I would recommend checking out the following online databases and online archives:
- Canadian Newsstream: "Full-text articles from major Canadian newspapers and several Toronto community newspapers."
- Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive: "Articles and full page reproductions of the complete newspaper from 1894 to 2016."
- Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive: "Articles and full page reproductions of the complete newspaper from 1844 to 2016."
If you do decide to look at some of these newspapers, please remember that the terms used for Indigenous peoples then differed from how they are used now.
Available in print and online
21 Things You Didn't Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph (Gwawaenuk Nation)
"Based on a viral article, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is the essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussion on generations of Indigenous peoples, written by a leading cultural sensitivity trainer. The Indian Act, after 141 years, continues to shape, control, and constrain the lives and opportunities of Indigenous peoples, and is at the root of many lasting stereotypes. Bob Joseph's book comes at a key time in the reconciliation process, when awareness from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is at a crescendo. Joseph explains how Indigenous peoples can step out from under the Indian Act and return to self-government, self-determination, and self-reliance-and why doing so would result in a better country for every Canadian. He dissects the complex issues around truth and reconciliation, and clearly demonstrates why learning about the Indian Act's cruel, enduring legacy is essential for the country to move toward true reconciliation."
Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel (Métis)
"In Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel initiates myriad conversations about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. An advocate for Indigenous worldviews, the author discusses the fundamental issues--the terminology of relationships; culture and identity; myth-busting; state violence; and land, learning, law and treaties--along with wider social beliefs about these issues. She answers the questions that many people have on these topics to spark further conversations at home, in the classroom, and in the larger community."
Available in print only
"In 1945, Alfred Adams, a respected Haida elder and founding president of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia (NBBC), was dying of cancer. After decades of fighting to increase the rights and recognition of First Nations people, he implored Maisie Hurley to help his people by telling others about their struggle. Hurley took his request to both heart and mind, and with $150 of her own money, started a small newspaper that would become a powerful catalyst for change: The Native Voice. At that time, the Welsh-born Hurley had been an advocate for First Nations clients in court. She did not have a law degree, but was graced with the courage and confidence to challenge all who stood in her way. When defending a First Nations woman accused of stealing a hotel clerk's wallet, she seared the hapless plaintiff with such a withering cross examination that his off-colour rejoinder earned him a night in jail for contempt after he refused to pay the fine. After Hurley launched The Native Voice, it became the official newspaper of the NBBC, one of the largest democratic First Nations organizations in the country, but she continued to serve on the editorial board as publisher and director for many years without remuneration. At a time when telecommunication was expensive and often inaccessible in Aboriginal communities, The Native Voice reported relevant news and stories of everyday life to First Nations throughout the province, including hard-won rights such as the right to vote provincially (1949) and federally (1960). As the official publication of the NBBC, The Voice chronicled both the realities of Aboriginal life and a vision for the future, enabling and inspiring overdue change in Canada. Maisie Hurley's dedication to improving the lives of those she referred to as "my people" was honoured through several First Nations naming ceremonies by people of the Skeena, Squamish/North Vancouver and Comox areas. The story of the NBBC, The Native Voice and Maisie Hurley offer an inspiring testament to the power of cooperation and vision to create powerful change."
Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State by Alan Cairns
"In Citizens Plus, Alan Cairns unravels the historical record to clarify the current impasse in negotiations between Aboriginal peoples and the state. He considers the assimilationist policy assumptions of the imperial era, examines more recent government initiatives, and analyzes the emergence of the nation-to-nation paradigm given massive support by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. We are battered by contending visions, he argues - a revised assimilation policy that finds its support in the Canadian Alliance Party is countered by the nation-to-nation vision, which frames our future as coexisting solitudes. Citizens Plus stakes out a middle ground with its support for constitutional and institutional arrangements which will simultaneously recognize Aboriginal difference and reinforce a solidarity which binds us together in common citizenship."
This book is only available at the Toronto Reference Library and can only be used in branch, it cannot be borrowed. We will be posting updates about use of reference materials on our COVID-19 Impacts on the Toronto Public Library webpage.
Behind the Man: John Laurie, Ruth Gorman, and the Indian Vote in Canada by Ruth Gorman and Frits Pannekoek
"Behind the Man is a unique biography of Alberta political figure John Lee Laurie, a key proponent of Indigenous rights in the 1940s and 1950s. Before 1961, Indigenous people were allowed to vote in Federal elections only if they agreed to give up their treaty rights and leave behind their homes and families. Laurie was instrumental in securing amendments to the Indian Act which allowed Indigenous people to access the unfettered vote.
Ruth Gorman worked tirelessly alongside Laurie during these years, and was herself a major force in mobilizing public opinion. Gorman did not lay claim to these efforts, but remained a passionately vocal supporter of John Laurie. She began work on a book about Laurie but as she neared the end of her life became overwhelmed by the project's scope. She reached out to Dr. Frits Pannekoek to assist her in the book's completion.
As Dr. Pannekoek sorted through Gorman's extensive material, he quickly realized that her project was both a biography and an autobiography--the story was as much Gorman's as it was Laurie's. In the tradition of her time, she had taken the position of "the woman behind the man," but in telling Laurie's story she had found a way to tell her own."