A 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a personal choice whether or not to vote and, regardless of their decision, none of their rights would be altered or rescinded.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.

Enormous crowd at Outlook, Saskatchewan watches as Chief Little Crow of the Sioux Indian Tribe places head dress on Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, naming him Chief Walking Buffalo
John Diefenbaker being named Chief Walking Buffalo by Chief Little Crow of the Sioux Indian Tribe

Media and Document Gallery

Images

John Diefenbaker in Indian head dress
John Diefenbaker with Chief Mathias Joe of the Capilano and others in North Vancouver
John Diefenbaker speaking in Inuvik
John Diefenbaker greeting an Aboriginal woman, and a small boy
John Diefenbaker with Chief Brono, Chief Joe Sangris and the Mayor of Yellowknife, North West Territories
John Diefenbaker with school children in Whitehorse, Yukon
John and Olive Diefenbaker with Chief William Little Crow at Outlook Saskatchewan
John Diefenbaker being named Chief Walking Buffalo by Chief Little Crow of the Sioux Indian Tribe

Audio

Speech by John Diefenbaker at Penetang, Ontario

Creator: Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Canada – Human Rights

Description: John Diefenbaker mentions his devotion to the concept of equality for all Canadians, despite opposition to this view

Date Created: 2 May1965

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T544-PAC180b

Speech by John Diefenbaker to the Sudbury Progressive Conservative Association, Sudbury

Creator: Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Canada – First Nations | Canada – Franchise | Canada - Senators

Description: John Diefenbaker enumerates his Government’s achievements regarding First Nations issues, namely extending them the franchise and appointing James Gladstone to the Senate

Date Created: 15 May1965

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T543-PAC179b

Speech by John Diefenbaker at Waterton Park, Alberta

Creator: CJOC Radio, Lethbridge

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Canada – First Nations | Canada – Franchise

Description: John Diefenbaker discusses his Government’s recent granting of the franchise to First Nations and what it will mean for the future, at his investiture as an honorary Chief of the Kainai Chieftanship.

Date Created: 27 June1960

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T193-PAC44a

Documents

Letter from George A. Cree to John Diefenbaker

Creator: George A. Cree

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Treaty

Description: Questions regarding impact of changes to the Elections Act on First Nations Treaty rights.

Date Created: 20 January1960

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345140)

Letter from George F. Davidson to John Diefenbaker

Creator: George F. Davidson

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Blood Indian Reserve

Description: Outlines result of plebiscites held on a Blood Indian Reserve regarding Aboriginal views on voting rights.

Date Created: 29 April1961

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345095)

Letter from John G. Diefenbaker to Mrs. Hurley

Creator: John Diefenbaker

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Treaty

Description: Mr. Diefenbaker assures that voting rights will not alter any other First Nations rights.

Date Created: 30 May1962

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345071)

Letter to Fred de la Ronde from John Diefenbaker

Creator: John G. Diefenbaker

Subject: Canada – First Nations | British Columbia – First Nations

Description: Congratulating work done with First Nations groups in British Columbia.

Date Created: 17 June1960

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345096 - 345097)

Letter from John Diefenbaker to Percy A. Paull

Creator: John Diefenbaker

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Treaty

Description: Diefenbaker reiterates that Treaty and First Nations rights will not be diminished by amendments to the Elections Act.

Date Created: 9 March1962

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345078 – 345079)

Memo from Ellen Fairclough to John G. Diefenbaker

Creator: Ellen Fairclough

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Treaty

Description: Statements made in House of Commons on 11 April 1962 regarding changes to Elections Act not affecting Treaty rights.

Date Created: 18 May1962

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345070)

Memo to Mr. H.B.M. Best from H.M. Jones

Creator: H.M. Jones

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement

Description: Draft statement to address concerns of First Nations groups regarding amendments to the Election Act.

Date Created: 13 June1960

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345099 – 345100)

Memo to Ian Drost from J.A. Macaulay

Creator: J.A. Macaulay

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement

Description: Discusses strong suspicions harboured by First Nations communities regarding amendments to Section 14 of the Canada Elections Act.

Date Created: 30 May1962

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345065 – 345069)

Special edition of “The Native Voice”

Creator: Native Brotherhood of British Columbia

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | British Columbia – First Nations

Description: Outlines benefits of granting full citizenship rights to all First Nations people.

Date Created:no date

Identifier:MG01/VII/F/101 Volume 293 (186959 – 186986)

Letter to John Diefenbaker from Percy A. Paull

Creator: Percy A. Paull

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Treaty | British Columbia – First Nations

Description: Voicing concerns of First Nations people from British Columbia, where no Treaty rights exist.

Date Created: 24 February1962

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345080 - 345081)

Letter from John Sacobie to John Diefenbaker

Creator: John Sacobie

Subject: Canada – First Nations | Canada – Elections Act | First Nations – Enfranchisement | First Nations – Band Number 26

Description: Band is not in favour of any changes to the Elections Act, and criticizes Diefenbaker for lack of consultation with First Nations groups.

Date Created: 26 February1960

Identifier:MG01/VI/635.1 Volume 422 (345122)