Aboriginal chiefs across Canada say new voting rules mean thousands of aboriginal people could be discouraged from going to the polls in Tuesday's federal election.
They say a requirement that voters must show identification — including proof of an address — poses a challenge for aboriginal people. Many don't have a lot of government-issued identification or a recognized address complete with name and street number.
'If somebody challenges them, they leave the polling stations and they won't come back.' — Ontario Chief John Beaucage
Grand Council Chief John Beaucage with the Union of Ontario Indians says the rules will discourage more aboriginal people from voting at a time when they could tip the balance in dozens of ridings.
"If they don't feel comfortable going to the polling station with what's in their pocket, they're not going to go," says Beaucage, whose group is the political voice for 42 members of the Anishinabek First Nations. "If somebody challenges them, they leave the polling stations and they won't come back."
Aboriginal voter turnout is low at the best of times, hovering around 25 per cent, Beaucage says. Many feel estranged from the electoral system and the new policies don't help.
Parliament voted to amend the federal Elections Act almost two years ago as a way of clamping down on voter fraud. But more than one million Canadians in rural areas don't have an address with a street name and number. For some aboriginal people, their only address is the name of their reserve.
Bill Erasmus, regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, says there aren't enough cases of fraud to justify the risk of disenfranchising hundreds of aboriginal voters.
"It's a big concern," says Erasmus in the Northwest Territories. "We're hoping this will not be a detriment."
New rules pose challenge: Elections Canada
Elections Canada has been working with aboriginal communities to ensure they understand the new rules, says spokesman Serge Fleyfel.
The agency faxed 1,000 flyers to aboriginal businesses and band offices to explain the changes. There's a separate web page for aboriginal voters and special officers have been dispatched to work with communities.
If an aboriginal person doesn't have identification or proof of address on voting day, he or she can get the local band office to vouch for him or her, Fleyfel says.
"We know for aboriginal people, the identification is more of a challenge," he says. "That's why we put extra effort to inform them about the new rules…. We tried to think of all the possibilities to make sure that every Canadian, 18 years of age [and older], can vote."
During recent advance polls, Elections Canada didn't get complaints from the public or returning officers about the new rules, Fleyfel says. Still, some say that whoever wins on Tuesday should make sure the rules are changed again before the next election.
Liberals say rules fail aboriginal people
Sharon Carstairs, the Liberal party's campaign co-chair in Manitoba, says people who are turned away from a polling station won't spend hours going to their band office before going back to vote.
"They are virtually disenfranchised," says Carstairs, who adds that will make a big difference in hotly contested ridings such as Churchill, Man., where 60 per cent of the residents are aboriginal.
"The vast majority of lawmakers in Canada are not aboriginal. They certainly have had no experience living on reserves. This went through without people realizing what actual impact it could have in an aboriginal community."