Many Native people believe the federal elections mean little or nothing to them, that no matter the promises and gilded speeches, meaningful changes are impossible.
Others, such as my fellow Mohawks and other members of their respective Iroquois communities, argue that to take an active part in the Canadian political process is to compromise our standing as independent peoples and that formal treaty status is incompatible with citizenship; a nation cannot make treaties with its own people.
In this regard they are right. The American experience has been the whittling away of Aboriginal sovereignty. From the enforcing of U.S. federal and state criminal laws on Indian territories to the National Indian Gaming Act, there has been a decided, some would say fatal, move away from sovereignty to a status resembling that of local municipalities.
Among our own Iroquois people, the same contrasts exist between what we advocate and the reality of our social, legal and political lives. We do have a strong, vibrant culture but we also live in a time of historical challenges and nowhere is that more apparent than on my home community of Akwesasne, the capital (as we say the central fire) of the Mohawk Nation.
Our lands have been arbitrarily divided between Canada and the U.S. with attendant state and provincial sections. This along with a dozen alien police agencies, competing legal systems and three Native governing agencies, two of which were imposed upon Akwesasne at force of arms by officials in Ottawa and Albany while the third, the Mohawk Nation Council, has no financial resources to respond to the needs of its citizens.
We are therefore deeply affected by what the Canadian electorate decides and must have our voices heard in whatever forum presents itself if we are to remove the international border and rid ourselves of the colonial band-tribal council systems.
This does not mean we must cast ballots but we must be actively engaged if we are to lessen the burdens which have crippled us with every negative measure of social behaviour and physical health.
In the past our Iroquois leaders were masters of the political processes of not only our nations but those of the Europeans. We made it our business to understand how the immigrants thought and by which manner were they governed. We took a very active role in the affairs of the colonies. We also pressed for the colonial leaders to study our governance and thereby secure greater freedom for their own.
At the famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania treaty conference in 1744 the Onondaga leader Canassatego admonished the English colonies for their lack of unity and offered the Iroquois Confederacy as an example of freedom and stability. In 1754, at the Albany Unity Conference, the Mohawk leader Tiyanoga (Hendricks) also offered the Confederacy as a model for the colonies. Both speeches influenced Ben Franklin, who cited the Iroquois as a tangible example for colonial unification.
It was our active participation in the politics of that era which resulted in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, that edict which set in motion all formal treaty procedures between Native nations, Great Britain, the United States and Canada.
It is also true that in the spring of 1776 an Iroquois delegation was present in Philadelphia to advise the rebels as to Aboriginal relations and once again to offer the Confederacy as an entity whose powers are defined by a constitution with the rights of its citizens to specific freedoms and complete emancipation set into law.
In more recent times we have also sought to actively change Canadian policies and to secure our aboriginal rights. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was largely passed because the Iroquois Confederacy was at the UN pressing hard for its passage. While Canada and the U.S. have been among the most reluctant of signatories the enactment of the declaration into federal law will only happen if we press each one of the national parties commits to its passage.
We have to influence the policy makers and the ministers. We must have the ear of the next prime minister. We have to make our voices heard by using our diplomatic skills and our ability to come to terms: not to make fatal compromises in our standing as aboriginal nations but to draft and enact those laws and regulations which are within our means to change.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes, a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and the vice-president for the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge.