03/26/2014 08:57 EDT | Updated 05/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Kahnawake Mohawks divided on voting in Quebec election

Mohawks in Kahnawake considering voting in the coming provincial election — possibly for the first time in their lives — are being met with resistance, and even intimidation, from their community.

CBC News reporter Tanya Birkbeck spoke to one member of the Kahnawake community who said they intended to vote in the April 7 Quebec election, but who would only speak under the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a right that we have, it’s a democratic right that’s given to all citizens,” the person said. Although the would-be voter does not consider him- or herself to be a Quebecer or Canadian, the threat of the province separating from the rest of Canada — and the hypothetical possibility of having to re-negotiate land treaties with a new country’s government — is a major motivator in their decision to vote.

But the culture of intimidation around voting is real in Kahnawake, this person said. They asked for anonymity because they are afraid "of being judged or politically persecuted."

Unprecedented interest in voting

Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Mike Delisle agreed that some people feel intimidated for good reason.

He pointed to social media’s role in spreading intimidation around in Kahnawake with regards to voting in the coming Quebec election. He said he’s never seen as many Mohawks express interest in voting before.

“Some of my community are actually going to register and vote in the upcoming provincial election. I won’t say that’s unprecedented, but the number and the interest in this election I think is unprecedented,” Delisle said.

Steve Bonspiel, editor and publisher of Kahnawake newspaper The Eastern Door, said he’s surprised at how people are reacting to this election in particular.

“We asked the question last week in our nosy news poll and at least one person mentioned, ‘Well, you know what, if you want to make a change, go out and vote,’ and that’s an attitude we haven’t seen before especially in a provincial election,” Bonspiel said.

He personally doesn’t believe Mohawks have any responsibility or business in voting in provincial or federal elections. He said the 5,000 or so eligible voters in Kahnawake wouldn’t make much of a difference, if any, anyway because the riding the territory falls into (Châteauguay) is a Liberal stronghold.

Besides, Bonspiel said, “none of the parties care about native people.”

Grand Chief Delisle said he wasn’t encouraging people to vote — he himself has never, and probably won’t ever, vote — but that he wasn’t actively trying to discourage people from voting either.

“We’re not going to stand in anybody’s way. They have the right, but it’s an individual choice,” Delisle said.

Threat of separation

Delisle said the increased interest in voting is related to the threat of Quebec separating from Canada. Even though at this point it's entirely hypothetical, Delisle said a sovereign Quebec would prompt a lot of questions.

“Our question… is to Canada, who has a fiduciary obligation to not only Kahnawake in this territory, but everywhere across Indian country,” he said.

The anonymous person who spoke to CBC News said the possibility of Quebec separation is a good reason to consider voting in the provincial election, and in a possible future referendum.

“We’re trying to just make the best of what we have. And right now, if voting is the only option we have and it’s a viable option, then I don’t see why people should be judged for exercising the right that they have that they could be using at the moment to advance themselves and get a proper representation out there. Because maybe not everybody is for band council, maybe not everybody is for the longhouse. Maybe people want to try something new. We don’t know,” they said.

No voter cards

But it’s not as clear-cut as some would like.

Because there are no civic addresses or street names in Kahnawake, Mohawks have not received voter cards in their post office boxes.

Although the Elections Act prevents the Chief Electoral Officer from sending voter cards to post office boxes, the anonymous source said they previously received a card for federal elections.

They said they called Quebec City about the lack of provincial voter cards and was told the cards were sent to the band council and that they had been returned to sender.

Mohawks interested in voting can register to vote at the revision office in Châteauguay before April 3 at 2 p.m.

The Quebec election is April 7.