Enfranchisement of Canada’s First Nations

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a personal choice whether or not to vote and, regardless of their decision, none of their rights would be altered or rescinded.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 Standing Buffalo
John Diefenbaker being named Chief Standing Buffalo by Chief Little Crow of the Sioux Indian Tribe
Media and Document Gallery

Images

John Diefenbaker in Indian head dress
Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Saskatchewan – First Nations | School | Students

Description: John Diefenbaker in Indian head dress with a group of native children of the Beardy Okemasis band at Old Mission School in Duck Lake

Date Created: [v./ca. 1955]

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD7448

John Diefenbaker with Chief Mathias Joe of the Capilano and others in North Vancouver
Creator: Canada Pictures Limited

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | British Columbia – First Nations

Description: John Diefenbaker standing with Chief Matthias Joe and three other members of the Capilano Indian band who are all in ceremonial dress, North Vancouver Coast-Capilano riding, 1958 federal election

Date Created: March 1958

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD4859

John Diefenbaker speaking in Inuvik
Creator: National Film Board of Canada

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Northwest Territories – First Nations

Description: John Diefenbaker speaking from an outdoor platform during the opening ceremonies in Inuvik, Northwest Territories

Date Created: 21 July 1961

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD3643

John Diefenbaker greeting an Aboriginal woman, and a small boy
Creator: National Film Board of Canada

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Northwest Territories – Aboriginal

Description: John Diefenbaker greets an Aboriginal woman and a small boy, amidst a crowd of individuals, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Date Created: July 1961

Identifier: MG01/XVIIJGD3636

John Diefenbaker with Chief Brono, Chief Joe Sangris and the Mayor of Yellowknife, North West Territories
Creator: National Film Board of Canada

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Northwest Territories – First Nations

Description: John Diefenbaker talking to Chief Brono of Rae, Chief Sangris of Yellowknife and the Mayor of Yellowknife, North West Territories

Date Created: July 1961

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD3635

John Diefenbaker with school children in Whitehorse, Yukon
Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Yukon – First Nations | School

Description: John Diefenbaker standing to address the students of Whitehorse Elementary and High School, Christ the King School and the Indian Baptist Mission

Date Created: 26 September 1958

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD3606

John and Olive Diefenbaker with Chief William Little Crow at Outlook Saskatchewan
Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Saskatchewan – First Nations | Personalities | Traditional Costume

Description: John and Olive Diefenbaker talking to Chief William Little Crow of Sioux at South Saskatchewan River Dam ceremony, Outlook

Date Created: 27 May 1959

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD1176

John Diefenbaker being named Chief Standing Buffalo by Chief Little Crow of the Sioux Indian Tribe
Creator: Saskatchewan Government Photographic Services

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Saskatchewan – First Nations | Ceremony

Description: 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 Standing Buffalo

Date Created: May 1959

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD3451


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:2May1965

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:15May1965

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:27June1960

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T193-PAC44a


Documents

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