Case study: First Nations Peoples

Context card

Black and white picture of an Aboriginal Pow Wow in Rat Portage, Ontario
Source: McCord Museum, MP-3321

 

First Nations communities have their own traditional systems of governance that are different from the federal electoral system. These systems existed long before Europeans arrived and still exist today. 

For most of Canada’s history, First Nations peoples were granted the right to vote in a federal election only if they gave up their Indian status under the law. 

In 1960, First Nations peoples gained the right to vote in federal elections without conditions. Despite this, not many voted. Voting in federal elections was not part of their traditions. In recent years, more First Nations people have voted.


Activity cards

1867

Black and white watercolour of a family making baskets (centre) and two men standing (right).]
Source: Courtesy of the Nova Scotia Museum

 

At Confederation, the federal government takes on responsibility for First Nations peoples (called Indians at that time) without asking them.

The rules say that you have to own property to vote in federal elections. Not many First Nations people own property.  


1869

Black and white portrait of a First Nations man from the Plains.
Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-550-9

 

For the first time, a law mentions federal voting rights for First Nations peoples. 

First Nations peoples can vote but only if they give up their Indian status. Like other federal voters, they have to be male, over age 21, and own property. Not many First Nations peoples meet these conditions. 


1876

Black and white photo of a group of Indigenous people in Western Canada.
Source: Glenbow Archives, PA-3069-9

 

Parliament passes the Indian Act. The Act defines “Indian status” in detail.

First Nations men who become doctors, lawyers or religious leaders lose their Indian status without their consent. They can vote because the law no longer considers them to be “Indians.”      


1917

Black and white photo of the first time Indigenous men joined the Canadian Forces as soldiers.  First two rows: Indigenous men, some in traditional regalia. Last two rows: men in their soldier uniform.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-041366

 

During the First World War, First Nations men and women in the military can vote in federal elections. They do not have to give up their Indian status.

About 4,000 First Nations people serve in the First World War. 


1919

Black and white photo of Chief Joe Crow and Nick King near Fort Macleod, Alberta.
Source: Glenbow Archives, NC-10-48

 

The First World War ends.  First Nations veterans lose the right to vote if they go back to living on a reserve.     


1920

Black and white photo of the House of Commons Chamber during its opening ceremony.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-030603

 

Parliament makes changes to the Indian Act. Over the next two years, government workers remove the Indian status of over 5,000 First Nations people. When this happens, they gain the right to vote. 


1948

Black and white photo of Sergeant Tommy Prince (on the right), 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, with his brother, Private Morris Prince, at an investiture at Buckingham Palace.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-142289

 

Tommy Prince and other First Nations veterans tell a parliamentary committee that they should have the right to vote without any conditions. 

Three years later, the Indian Act is updated, but voting rights for First Nations do not change. 


1960

Black and white photo of John Diefenbaker with Chief Jimmy Bruneau of Rae, Chief Joe Sangris, and the Mayor of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in discussion.
Source: University of Saskatchewan, University Archives & Special Collections, John G. Diefenbaker fonds MG 411, JGD 3635

 

All First Nations men and women gain the right to vote without any conditions.  

Prime Minister Diefenbaker had made this promise during the 1957 election.


1962

Black and white photo in Hiawatha Council Hall on the occasion of a federal by-election. The first votes cast since the right to vote was extended to all status Indians were those of the Rice Lake Band near Peterborough, Ontario. From left to right: Lawrence Salleby; Chief Ralph Loucks, Deputy Returning Officer; Lucy Muskrat, Poll Clerk; Eldon Muskrat, Poll Constable.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-123915

 

This is the first federal election where all First Nations men and women are eligible to vote. 
    
There are limited voting services in remote areas and on reserves.


1982

Image of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Source: Content and courtesy of the Department of Canadian Heritage

 

The right to vote is guaranteed for all Canadian citizens in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter is part of Canada’s Constitution.  

This means that voting rights for First Nations cannot be taken away by any other law.


1996

Co-Chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Georges Erasmus speaks in front of a microphone.
Source: The Canadian Press / Dave Buston

 

Georges Erasmus is Co-Chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The Commission reports that First Nations peoples do not see voting rights as a major achievement or a way to improve their lives.


2019

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde addresses the crowd at the Assembly of First Nations.
Source: The Canadian Press / Stephen MacGillivray

 

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, urges all First Nations people to use their right to vote in the 2019 federal election.


From time immemorial to the present

Black and white photo of two Indigenous men in a bark canoe in Restigouche, Quebec.]Black and white photo of two Indigenous men in a bark canoe in Restigouche, Quebec.
Source: McCord Museum, MP-1452137

 

Hundreds of distinct First Nations govern themselves for thousands of years. Each nation has its own complex system of government and way of choosing its leaders.