It was a packed room at Station 20 West as five speakers sat in the front to tell their personal stories about sovereignty and voting.
The public forum called "To Vote Or Not To Vote?" was a specific call out to indigenous voters, a group that federal politicians are finally and rightfully reaching out to.
Historically, Aboriginal voters tended to sway to the Liberal Party and many parties didn't want to deal with Aboriginal issues because it would likely lose them votes rather than win them. Actual voter turnout for Aboriginal People was significantly lower than the general population for many different reasons.
A 2011 report by Elections Canada says "the gap in turnout between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal electors can be completely accounted for by residence on or off a reserve, age, education, income, political resources and civic duty. Were it not for the lower rate of registration, fewer political resources, weaker sense of civic duty, younger average age and poorer socio-economic footing of Aboriginals, they could be expected to vote in federal elections at the same rate as non-Aboriginals. Our findings suggest that turnout among Aboriginals would
increase by 20 percentage points if their profile on these determinants matched that of non-Aboriginals, completely closing the gap between them."
Since the report, NDP have emerged as another party option and there is concern that Bill C-24, dubbed the Fair Elections Act by the government, could actually hinder some of those factors further for Aboriginal voters.
Also since 2011 the Aboriginal community has seen the Idle No More movement, benchmark Supreme Court Rulings, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. For many Aboriginal people the relationship with Aboriginal Affairs and the Conservative Government also appears to become more adversarial each day.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde recently said that the Aboriginal vote could sway 51 ridings across the country. After bearing the brunt of bad press when he said he has not voted, Bellegarde said he would be participating in the upcoming election.
But his history as a non-voter is certainly not the anomaly when it comes to Aboriginal participation in the federal political system in Canada. Many Aboriginal people don't recognize the Canadian political system, others like Mi'kmaw lawyer Pamela D. Palmater, don't vote because of sovereignty and self-determination.
"The whole point of sovereignty is that Indigenous nations must assert, live, and defend our sovereignty, jurisdiction, and right of self-determination -- not vote for federal politicians to do that for us," Palmater said in a Rabble blog post
"It is internationally recognized law that citizens don't sign treaties with their nation-states -- treaties are reserved for nation-to-nation relations. Both the Royal Proclamation of 1763 (which is now constitutionally protected) and the historical treaties recognize our status as Nations. When I think about how I want to be represented at the negotiation table with Canada, I would much rather engage in nation-to-nation negotiations than as a stakeholder, interest group, or ethnic minority Canadian citizen."
That was the stance that Poundmaker Cree Nation band Counsellor Colby Tootoosis took on the panel. He said he has never voted because Poundmaker is a nation and should be recognized that way.
Tootoosis, an engaging and vibrant speaker, had the crowd listening intensely as he explained that the slave/master mentality brought and kept colonizers on his people's historical land. The federal election system is designed to oppress colonized people and the agenda remains the same; assimilate and domesticate, according to Tootoosis.
"When I begin to conduct myself as a domestic minority then the assimilation process will be easier down the line," he said. "If you take a broken car and you give it a new paint job and expect it to work brand new, it doesn't work that way."
Kinosaeo Sipl. Indigenous educator and director of Indigenous Teacher Education Program (ITEP) at the University of Saskatchewan, Chris Scribe also said he had never voted and planned to meet his maker without ever casting one.
As an educator he said sovereignty is about allowing children to feel pride in who they are but the system and government is meant to assimilate people. Scribe argued that voting will not allow voices to be heard because we can't change the system from within "if a system is in place to assimilate us, tear us down, and kill the Indian in the child." Instead he said that indigenous people should stand behind their prayers and the treaty - a nation to nation understanding.
"Canadians should vote out harper but that Indigenous people have no business voting in a system designed to kill them," Scribe said.
It was the "non-vote" point of view I was interested in hearing. As a non-indigenous person I will never understand the spiritual and essential attachment and belief in the power and history of the treaty, which was a major argument behind not voting. But as a non-indigenous person I can understand feeling disengaged with a system that only recently has gone slightly beyond platitudes to real plans and dollars promised to Aboriginal People and issues during an election campaign. I can also understand not wanting to engage in a system that has historically not only not benefited an entire population of people, but has actually diminished them.
But in today's day and age, how do you change that?
Linguist and Indigenous facilitator from the Poundmaker Cree nation Tyrone Tootoosis Sr said that this October he will be casting his very first vote.
"To not vote is a vote for Harper," Tyrone said. "By voting in this election we do not forsake our sense of sovereignty we reclaim it."
Tyrone said that Treaty rights, although intended to be inherent, are under attack.
"Is it going to do or create any kind of justice or change? our involvement in the process? I don't know," he said. "But I do know, based on the past, that I've been part of the silent minority, that hasn't changed anything. We need voice. The only way the system listens is if we participate."
Because of historically low Aboriginal voter turnout, Ottawa has not felt the need or obligation to make or follow through on promises. That's changing. It's clear even at the panel discussion that a transformation is sweeping over indigenous people. Even if they are choosing not to vote, they aren't doing it silently, they are speaking out and engaging with politicians and the general public about why.
"For the first time in decades we have managed to throw a monkey wrench, interruption into the current happenings," Idle No More co-founder and grandmother from the Kahkewistahaw First Nation Nina Wilson said.
"White people are sick of white people right now, we have to ride that horse."
This October will be Wilson's second vote in her life. She said that it's, in a way, to voice that the poverty that First nations are "plagued" with is a political and predatory issue.
"Resistance is sovereignty's right hand woman. It is a chronic aspect to any colonial state and its not going anywhere," she said, adding voting is a form of resistance.
"The resistance is gong to increase as long as the dominance increases."
The pro-voter arguments had one thing in common; they weren't voting for a saviour to come into First Nations communities and urban aboriginal households, carrying food, clean water, and solutions to every problem. Instead they were voting for change.
"The minute I decided to vote, it wasn't a vote for canadian political party that I though was going to save me, it was because it was one of the ways that we as human being sitting in this room have within our artillery to fight against what is happening to our lands and our water, not just here in Canada but around the world," Indigenous Vote Sask. co-founder from Pelican Lake First Nation Glenda Abbott, said.
"I understands the system wasn't created for me but as a human being we should use everything we have to stop what's destroying our land and water."
She said she could feel the change as two political parties (NDP and Liberals) were publicly vocalizing plans for nation to nation talks, around 50 indigenous candidates running for seats, and the 51 ridings directly impacted by an Aboriginal vote.
That's the furor that I felt, as a non-indigenous person, in the room. Near the end of the talk the moderator asked who in the room was going to vote, about two-thirds of the people people their hands up. When it came to who was not going to vote, it was only a couple hands that went up, the left were undecided.
Although a panel about voting, might be preaching to the choir a bit, it was a change of pace to see such a significant change to the usual statistics. As the group finished the evening with a prayer and bannock, a lot of the people who sat to watch the panel were discussing the points around sovereignty, treaties, and what a vote could really do.
"I wanted to see, to hear about some of the views on sovereignty and not voting because I really feel that it is part of my rights and I can make a difference if I vote," Bev Crain said.
She drove in from Muskoday First Nation just for the panel.
"I was impressed because theses people were cut and dried and they said 'no, they weren't going to vote' but now they will vote and that is a rallying cry, vote to get Stephen Harper out," she said.
That comment in itself was one thing the vote and don't vote sides could agree on. In the room at Station 20 West in Saskatoon there was certainly no love for the Conservatives or Prime Minister Harper. But the Conservatives have a big base with a lot of votes in Canada --- but it might be the time, if Aboriginal voters agree on that one thing, that they come out in droves, making history along the way.
October 20th we will know.
Kelly Geraldine Malone is a freelance journalist, podcaster, and radio producer based out of Manitoba, Canada