Chairman's Desk

Elections Canada failed to guarantee access for Indigenous voters during the 2021 federal election

You likely didn’t hear about it, as the issue hardly made a splash in the news: during our September federal election, 205,000 mail-in ballots were uncounted. This issue is especially troubling for its outsize impact on Indigenous communities, and stacks on other, similar failures.

There are 274 First Nations communities in Canada that lack access to an on-reserve polling station. This adds to the importance of accessible mail-in ballots. However, the relatively short writ period, combined with the pressing demands of a pandemic election, created a flurry of issues on this front.

Ridings in northern Ontario were especially problematic. In Kenora, election day arrived during multiple First Nations’ traditional hunting season, meaning a wide swath of those communities would be absent. To accommodate this, Elections Canada provided advance polling for fly-in communities to ensure access. But when election day arrived, there were no polling stations provided — and what’s more, multiple voters were issued voting cards with incorrect information.

It is straightforward enough to chalk this up to a failure of communication, but the entire episode speaks to systemic issues in the way Indigenous communities are engaged. First Nations, Métis and Inuit represent priority communities for Elections Canada’s work — and this failure to guarantee the most fundamental of civil rights is a direct affront to the spirit and process of reconciliation.

In the last year, Indigenous peoples have had to contend with the painful discovery of unmarked burials at former residential schools, a lengthy court dispute over Canada’s discriminatory child-welfare system, and persistent challenges accessing the necessary infrastructure so that drinking water advisories can be lifted.

Given our unambiguous failings in these areas, it’s worth pausing to consider the stakes of this past election, and the particular importance for every Canadian voter, including Indigenous people, to have their voices heard.

When Justin Trudeau’s government came to power in 2015, the new prime minister ensured that each incoming minister received notice in their mandate letters that “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.”

But the Elections Canada failure demonstrates an important reality that Indigenous people contend with every day: political will and good intentions alone cannot uproot the problematic systems that define Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people.

We are lucky to live in a country where elections are managed independently — but given the widespread nature of oppression elsewhere in Canada, is it any surprise that independent bodies are marked by the same?

And while Parliament has no role in the day-to-day operations of Elections Canada, our political leadership bears accountability.

In October 2020, Stéphane Perrault, Canada’s chief electoral officer, provided a series of recommendations to Parliament that would strengthen Elections Canada’s ability to execute a fair, safe election. While these changes were considered in Bill C-19, it was abandoned before passage. Ultimately, calling the election was given higher priority than ensuring its fairness.

This issue is not a partisan one, nor is it a unique flaw of this current government. This case is emblematic of systemic racism and the failure to listen to Indigenous voices — from our political leadership, our bureaucracy, and yes, from Elections Canada.

No doubt, the political will for Indigenous reconciliation is strong, even if it may not always translate into effective action. But what needs to change at an equal pace is the way our machinery of government accounts for and engages with Indigenous people.

Elections Canada has vowed to conduct a review, but the problem is clear and has been known for some time. A 1991 Royal Commission explained that Indigenous communities cannot be engaged only once the writ has dropped. Rather, they need to be consulted on an ongoing basis.

Enfranchisement is the most fundamental of civil rights, and work needs to happen now to make certain that it is shared equally by all Canadians at the next election. For those championing reconciliation, this would be a good place to start.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 13, 2022.

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