How Carry the Kettle's Felix Ashdohonk made history by casting a ballot in Sask.'s 1960 election

·3 min read
Felix Ashdohonk was 28 years old when he cast his vote in Saskatchewan's 1960 provincial election. It's believed he was the first person from a First Nation to do so in the province. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)
Felix Ashdohonk was 28 years old when he cast his vote in Saskatchewan's 1960 provincial election. It's believed he was the first person from a First Nation to do so in the province. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)

Talk of a federal election is building in Canada and Indigenous issues — and voter turnout — have been the subjects of the media spotlight during elections over the last decade or so.

In the wake of discoveries of unmarked and undocumented graves at residential school sites, Indigenous people may once again find themselves at the centre of election campaign promises.

But in Canada's history, that hasn't always been the case. First Nations people weren't even allowed to vote until 1960 without giving up their treaty and status rights.

It's believed Carry The Kettle Nakoda Nation's Felix Ashdohonk, now 88, was the first "treaty Indian" to cast a ballot in the Land of Living Skies, when he voted in Saskatchewan's 1960 provincial election.

He was working in Regina at the time, and an image of him casting his ballot was captured by the Regina Leader-Post and circulated across Canada. A supervisor who visited the city from Toronto saw the photo in newspapers there and recognized him, Ashdohonk said.

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

The June provincial election he voted in actually came about one month before the federal government allowed First Nations people to vote in federal elections — a change that didn't come into effect until July 1, 1960. The change for provincial elections in Saskatchewan came into effect earlier that year.

"Lots of them didn't [vote] — they were strictly against it. I know I caught hell around here that election, too," Ashdohonk said.

"Yeah, [people would say] 'you stay out of the reserve, you voted, you're outta here.'"

Residential school survivor

Eventually — after he avoided a lot of people from home — those feelings of animosity toward him passed, he said.

Ashdohonk also worked as the maintenance person for the community's health clinic for nearly three decades before retiring.

But he spent numerous years working outside of the community before the dust settled.

Now he's got his own piece of land to call home in Carry The Kettle, about 75 kilometres northeast of Regina. A printed copy of the photo of Ashdohonk casting his ballot can be seen in the community's elders' lodge.

Ashdohonk chalked up the animosity toward him at the time as a misunderstanding. He said many in the community felt as though he had broken a treaty agreement, when in fact he hadn't.

He said it was an unknown lawyer who approached him in 1960 and told him he had the right to vote — and he should use that right to cast his ballot.

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

Ashdohonk says he felt at the time that having his say in politics was important, and that compelled him to vote when he learned he was allowed to do so.

He grew up going to residential schools — a policy of the federal government.

He also grew up as a witness to the pass and permit system, which prevented First Nations people from leaving reserves without a pass indicating the local Indian agent had approved their outing.

Those systems are now gone. While many factors likely played a role in that, Ashdohonk believes getting the right to vote for First Nations people was part of what led to the extinction of those policies.

Though he cast his ballot in 1960, he said he can't recall another time he voted, federally or provincially.

He says he didn't get an adequate education when he attended the Lebret Indian Residential School, where he was forced into manual labour jobs or menial tasks, rather than learning.

That, he said, made him feel less like contributing come election time.

But he said it's important for young people to participate in the election system, whenever an election is called again.

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