Enfranchisement of Canada’s First NationsA dedication to fairness and equality was a driving force of John Diefenbaker’s career. Diefenbaker felt that all citizens were entitled to certain essential rights, despite cultural differences. Throughout his political career he attempted to correct certain aspects of Canada’s past injustices, and his government took steps to create harmony between the Federal Government and First Nations peoples.
The Diefenbaker government’s key achievement in Aboriginal affairs was the extension of the franchise (or the right to vote) in 1960. First Nations people before this time, as federal “wards” were not allowed to vote in federal elections. Following the two World Wars, veterans were enfranchised, but only if they gave up their Indian Status – only 250 voluntarily accepted the offer. Diefenbaker felt strongly about providing all First Nations people the right to vote, as was his government, especially Senator James Gladstone (the first Aboriginal person appointed to the Senate). In 1960, his government changed the section of the Indian Act which denied First Nations people the vote.
However, some members of the First Nations community viewed enfranchisement negatively. They believed that by voting they would be giving up their distinct Status and become assimilated. In particular, they were concerned that gaining the franchise would lead them to lose the reserve lands which were guaranteed by the Crown.
Numerous leaders and Chiefs wrote to the Diefenbaker administration, objecting that the changes were taking place without the First Nations people’s consultation and endorsement. In response, the Diefenbaker government reassured the First Nations people that the right to vote was in fact an additional benefit to living in Canada; nothing would be taken away from them. It was a personal choice whether or not to vote and, regardless of their decision, none of their rights would be altered or rescinded. This characterization of Native rights was later summed up in the phrase "Citizen Plus."
Once the franchise was granted to First Nations people, they were able put their new right to vote to use for the first time in the 1962 Federal Election. Despite the concerns certain leaders had raised, First Nations people went to the polls in higher numbers than expected. This step by the Diefenbaker government was the precursor to many more which attempted to correct the historic political marginalization of Aboriginal people in Canadian history.