B.C. Election: A Provincial Election on Unceded Territory

The complications of voting for Indigenous people in Canada
Justin Bige

Brandon Gabriel (2)

Brandon Gabriel, nephew of Kwantlen Hereditary Chief Marilyn Gabriel says that voting is only one way for first nations to influence provincial legislature. (Submitted)

Encouraging Indigenous people to vote seems like an obvious suggestion for the First Nations to make in advance of the upcoming election, but such participation can actually be silencing rather than empowering.

In a representative government like British Columbia’s, to have a choice in who leads means to cast a ballot, but for many in B.C. this choice is still quite new. Unlike most Canadian provinces, B.C. has not had treaty negotiations with a majority of the original inhabitants of its land.

Would participation in an election held by such a government—which, for all intents and purposes, is squatting on First Nations land—not give consent to said government to ignore Indigenous rights and title across the province? And if there are rights under Indian Act status, would voting threaten that? The province continues to issue permits to corporations extracting resources, despite different Indigenous communities saying no. They often manufacture consent out of the participation of voting by different Indigenous communities.

When push comes to shove, and the existence of Indigenous communities is at stake, participation may also be integral as a tool of survival. Swing ridings in many interior provinces can be determined by the votes Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous youth. Still, the result was a federal Liberal government which failed to keep many positive promises for the prosperity of Indigenous communities.

Should the First Nations in British Columbia have confidence that the provincial government will change its behaviour? Are promises by the NDP or Green Party just lip service, or is removing Christy Clark’s Liberal government worth engaging the Indigenous vote?

Personally, I lean towards the latter. But I can’t forget to acknowledge the lack of trust that other Indigenous people like me have for the government.

This July, Canada may have its anniversary of confederation for 150 years of a supposedly representative democracy, but until 1960, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people were unable to even vote in Canadian elections. For B.C. that right came in 1949. Before these dates, First Nations had to give up their status as Indigenous peoples to vote, just as they did to join the military, go to post-secondary school, and do many other things that others take for granted.

In 1871 James Douglas claimed that the province of B.C. had joined confederation with the consent of First Nations. In reality, at the Fort Langley parliament building where the documents were signed, even Kwantlen First Nation was barred from witnessing the event. It was a fraudulent claim that backed the Confederation of Canada, and ultimately led to the creation of the Indian Act of 1876 and the Indian Residential Schools.

In terms of governance for First Nations in B.C., confederation led a push in policy to erode structures that have been practiced in different Indigenous communities for thousands of years. This was the Indian Act “Band Chief-and-Council” format that the government of Canada pushed upon different reserves through the newly created Department of Indian Affairs.

First it was a voluntary format, the selling point of which was the inclusion of Indigenous voices through representative governance. This was done through their elected Band Chief-and-Council. In reality the result was the silencing of Indigenous voices in parliament. When few bands desired this model, the Department of Indian Affairs made it mandatory, withholding treaty obligations unless they complied. There was still resistance, thus the implementation of Indian Agents who were given authority to remove traditional and hereditary leaders of First Nations. They could even ban them from running in elections. It was these policies that led to the present-day governance practices that are often abused.

Some First Nations in B.C. have returned to their traditional governance structures. Kwantlen First Nation is one such band. Brandon Gabriel, grandson of Hereditary Chief Marilyn Gabriel, has spoken about provincial elections and the historical context of the Indian act. He has said that KFN operated under the Indian Act from 1876 to 1993. When his grandfather, Chief Joe Gabriel, passed away, Marilyn Gabriel directed the KFN towards old ways.

The first change towards traditional modes of governance was changing their name. Before 1993, Kwantlen First Nation was known as the Fort Langley Indian Band. Names can have a profound effect on identity for a First Nation, and Brandon mentions, “I didn’t know what Nation I was from before that.”

Gabriel explains that his Nation no longer abides by Indian Act rules to elect “managers and administrators,” since asserting autonomy on Unceded Coast Salish Territories can be done from a grassroots level, and allows operation from a strategic fiscal and social perspective.

In regards to the election at hand, Brandon said that voting didn’t feel very meaningful to him in terms of “influence or bargaining” government on any provincial legislative level. That isn’t to say that KFN isn’t active on a political front, even with 2017’s election. Gabriel did a Territorial welcoming for the all-candidates debate in Langley, Abbotsford, and Aldergrove. though there were no B.C. Liberal Party candidates or current MLAs present. What they received looked more like an unwelcoming.

“Not just an unwelcoming, but … a proclamation that [the provincial] government has no credibility in the eyes of the Kwantlen people. We will not honour them with our ancient protocols by welcoming them into our territory because of their stance and support of resource exploitative industries, and that their practices go against our Unceded sovereignty and rights as Kwantlen people,” he says.

One cannot vote without also consenting to the government’s existence to begin with. But no vote does not mean no say, and in some cases, it means an even greater impact. For Kwantlen First Nation and Brandon Gabriel, the choice is clear.

“We’re going to engage in the way that we find suitable to holding this government accountable,” says Gabriel. “This doesn’t always look like voting. Voting is not the only way to uphold a democracy

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