Dear Prime Minister Harper,
I am the Chief of Lac La Ronge Indian Band, which is the largest First Nation in Saskatchewan with 10,023 members, of which 6,136 are of voting age. We are a multi-community band comprising of six separate communities.
I am writing to request the federal government consider amendments to Bill C-23 (The Fair Elections Act) to accommodate the democratic rights of First Nations voters. Comprehensive consultation with Canada's First Nations is needed before making any future changes to the way federal elections are administered.
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When you as the Prime Minister made your apology on the residential school issue, you promised to pay due respect to First Nations. The "Fair" Election Act is not an example of respect. It is an attack on the First Nations peoples' right to vote.
After First Nations peoples gained the right to vote in 1960, governments have been trying to get a better turn out but because of this history of enfranchisement, there have been low voter turnouts. But this is not the case in local band elections. Democracy is alive and well within the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.
'The elimination of vouching will greatly reduce the number of our community members who will be able or willing to exercise their right to vote rather than encouraging voter participation.' - Chief Tammy Cook-Searson
Like all Canadians, our band members deserve to have the right to vote in federal elections. On the six reserves that comprise the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, many of our community members do not have identification with an address. Status Indian cards contain one’s name but not one's address. Our community members frequently move on and off the reserve to pursue educational and employment opportunities. They also live in crowded homes with ten people or more residing in the same residence. In a great number of cases, only one person in the household receives utility bills.
Importantly, Bill C-23 would prohibit the practice of 'vouching' whereby a fellow community member can attest to a person's residence or a band official appointed by the chief can vouch for our community members if they do not have identification containing their address. Vouching has been used frequently with band appointed officials in the Lac La Ronge communities over the past several federal and provincial elections. There has never been one case of fraud.
When this problem was raised with the parliamentary committee studying the bill, a government MP stated that the Act would allow our community members to obtain an attestation of residence from our band council prior to election day. With over 6,000 band members that are eligible vote, such a system would take away our very limited administrative resources from more pressing issues and pose an unfair expectation for voters in our communities.
The elimination of vouching will greatly reduce the number of our community members who will be able or willing to exercise their right to vote rather than encouraging voter participation.
In the last provincial election in November 2011, the Saskatchewan government wanted to eliminate chiefs and band officials from vouching for our band members. Fortunately, we were able to work out a solution with the independent electoral officer who made the right decision and amended a form to allow us to vouch for our community members. In one LLRIB community alone, we vouched for 80 people. We need this type of solution at the federal level.
'For us, voting in a federal election is reconciliation with the past and expresses a willingness to move together with our fellow Canadians towards a brighter future.' - Chief Tammy Cook-Searson
Under Bill C-23, numerous members of my community will be turned away from polling stations during the next federal election. It will be heart wrenching for our band members to have to tell their fellow band members that they cannot exercise their democratic right to vote, particularly our young people who may be voting for the first time. It is probable that these community members will not return next election to vote or ever again desire to participate in the democratic process.
When members of Lac La Ronge Indian Band vote in a federal election, we are taking a step towards participating in Canadian politics and believing in Canada despite the historical injustices against us. For us, voting in a federal election is reconciliation with the past and expresses a willingness to move together with our fellow Canadians towards a brighter future.
Chief Tammy Cook-Searson
Lac La Ronge Indian Band