More than one way to use a ballot

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Whether it’s valid or spoiled won’t make a difference in our “democracy.” Arnaud Jaegers via Unsplash

Filling in your ballot is an act of power, and spoiling that ballot is one way to use that power

by jack nestor, contributor

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada are set to form government after the 2021 Canadian Federal Election. This is the second federal election I have been eligible to participate in, but the first I have decided not to participate in. To be clear, it would not be entirely accurate to state that I did not participate in the 2021 Federal Election. Rather, I would forfeit the privilege of voting in dedication to higher ideals.

Nonetheless, this forfeit marked an ideological chasm between me as an eighteen-year-old high school senior, and a near twenty-year-old university sophomore. As an eighteen-year-old I had implored my fellow students to vote in a mock election. Now, less than two years later, I am failing to live up to the standards I once held my peers to.

I do not doubt that many readers will react the same way that those close to me did when I confessed to spoiling my ballot. They would be resounding in their thinking that I had wasted my ballot and consequently voided my privilege of criticizing the government that emerges from the election. These are not novel ideas by any means. Yet, they remain mostly unquestioned by members of a democratic society. This is a challenge to the conventional ideas of democratic participation, and an explanation of my actions.

Beginning with the idea that I wasted my vote, I wish to make two points. First, it is worth pointing out that my federal riding has been dominated by the Conservative Party of Canada. While the incumbent Member of Parliament (MP) is not seeking re-election, the political climate that persists in my community is by no means conducive to an ideological shift. In other words, I may have contributed to the support or opposition of my MP, but in either case it would have been an insignificant contribution. Second, I would refer my reader to the 2019 Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election. In the wake of NDP Leader Alison Coffin’s suggestion of spoiling ballots to voice discontent, a professor at Memorial University argued that this would have only a marginal impact in comparison to not voting. Certainly, one spoiled ballot is insignificant amid a mass of proper ones. Is it not true that my proper ballot would have been insignificant amid the mass of Conservative ballots that were counted on Monday, 20 September, 2021? Further, had I simply chosen not to vote at all – as one person suggested – I would risk being accused of shirking my democratic rights and responsibilities. It was only through the spoiled ballot that I could demonstrate my commitment to my ideals without compromising my conscience.

I once believed — and perhaps I still believe — that the ballot is the best instrument for change. My political education was imbued with the idea that even if the voter’s preferred candidate lost, the voter was entitled to criticize the victor on account of the former’s participation in the electoral process. The same entitlement would be withheld from the non-voter as they forfeited it when failing to participate. Such a precept was so fundamental to my understanding that I neglected to question it until recently. Upon this recent investigation, I reached an alternative conclusion where the non-voter is not necessarily indifferent to the process, but disaffected by it. Such is the case for me personally. I do not doubt that it has been the case for others before me anymore than I do not doubt that it will explain the actions of non-voters after me.

It is not without reason that I have withheld the source of my disaffection. Before I reveal this, however, it is important for my reader to understand my identity. I am first and foremost a Canadian. In my understanding, being a Canadian comes with certain privileges and responsibilities – these privileges include the right to participate in a free and democratic election, and our responsibilities are what we owe to our treaty partners. While we would like to believe this is an important issue to us, less than half of the settler population surveyed by the Confederation of Tomorrow believed that government should do more regarding reconciliation.

The perceived importance of Indigenous issues that we would like to believe exists today existed only twice in Canadian history: first, from the formative years of the Dominion of Canada to the absorption of Indian Affairs into the Department of Mines and Resources in 1936; and second, from the aftermath of the White Paper of 1969 to the reverberations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In neither period were our treaty obligations towards our partners fulfilled. Government policy and social attitudes towards our treaty partners indicate that these obligations will remain unfulfilled, and the treaty relationship ignored.

Another aspect of my identity is that I am a settler. Some may think that this precludes me from commenting on matters relating to treaty – as a colonizer I not only benefit from, but contribute to, the obstruction of this relationship. I invite these readers to reconsider the nature of treaty in a critical light. Rather than an instrument of land dispossession, treaties should be understood as marriages between peoples. In the case of Treaty 4, the marriage was between the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, and the Crown. Until his death in 1889, Crown Negotiator, Alexander Morris had remained committed to a faithful fulfilment of our treaty obligations and treaty relationship. Indeed, Morris understood the treaty relationship as the basis of a Canadian presence in the Northwest. It is the treaty relationship that legitimizes our use of Indigenous land — and consequently, it is the treaty relationship that forms the fundamentals of our constitutional order. The Canadian legal system, however, has repeatedly failed to observe this practice in relation to the treaty relationship. The most egregious obstruction of the treaty relationship has been the continuity of the Canadian government’s authority where it has failed to fulfil its obligations to its treaty partners.

The higher ideals that I referred to in the opening paragraph concern our fulfilment of treaty obligations and observation of this relationship. The failure towards our treaty partners has delegitimized the Canadian government according to this relationship. A renewed neglect of the treaty relationship surrounding recent legislation on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples leaves me with no confidence that a reversal is imminent following the election. For me to vote for a candidate in the 2021 Federal Election would be for me to uphold a process that exists without constitutional legitimacy on account of our failure to fulfil our obligations and relationship.

Those that disagree with me are right about one thing: employees of Elections Canada will not care about my ballot. I aim not to rationalize my actions, nor to cast shame upon my fellow students and Canadians. Rather, I hope that my fellow students and Canadians think critically about what they want Canada to be. I want a Canada that I can be proud of and be proud to participate in. Until the treaty relationship is observed, and our obligations fulfilled, I will continue to refuse to uphold an illegitimate government. I end this with the belief that the ballot remains the most powerful instrument of change, but that there is more than one way to use your power.

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