Elections Canada has budgeted up to $1 million to help First Nations cope with new voter-identification rules that could make it harder for indigenous people to cast ballots in this year’s federal election.

The agency is hiring the Assembly of First Nations to warn its 634 bands and others about the tougher rules, which are doing away with “vouching,” commonly used on reserves where relatively few voters have identity cards that show their home address as required.

Previous federal elections have allowed a second person to vouch for the identity of a voter who lacks documents that contain an address. But last year’s controversial Fair Elections Act essentially ended the practice after the Harper government said it was open to abuse.

The act substitutes a new procedure — called “attestation” — which makes it more difficult and complicated for a second voter to declare that a prospective voter resides in a riding.

An estimated 120,000 Canadians relied on vouching in the 2011 federal election. Critics of the Fair Elections Act warned the elimination of vouching would particularly hurt First Nations communities, where ID with addresses is hard to obtain, and where election-turnout rates are already low, about 16 percentage points below the national rate.

Any barrier an issue

derek nepinak

Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says the Fair Elections Act has erected new barriers to aboriginal participation in federal votes. (CBC)

Elections Canada wants the Assembly of First Nations to examine “the access barriers faced by First Nations electors, related to registration and voting in a federal general election,” says a sole-source notice posted this week.

The contract is worth $475,000 until March 31 next year, covering the scheduled 2015 federal election and aftermath, with an optional $500,000 for the next election.

“We continue to be concerned about low voter turnout amongst the First Nation community,” Peter Dinsdale, an assembly spokesman, said in an interview. “Any barrier that could be raised, such as vouching, is an issue.”

“We’ll see if [the Fair Elections Act] is going to make it worse. Vouching has become an important tool for First Nations.… ID is absolutely a barrier.”

Elections Canada spokesman John Enright said that ID is always a problem for First Nations, but there are now some “significant changes” from the Fair Elections Act that will affect several groups, including the homeless, youth and people in nursing homes, as well as First Nations communities.

The agency is planning a series of outreach projects, including through the Assembly of First Nations, to spread the message that people without ID at polling stations “don’t have to give up and go away,” Enright said.

'If First Nations had wanted to prevent a majority [in 2011], they did have the numbers to do that.' —Éric Grenier, political poll analyst

The contract with the AFN includes an effort to hire more indigenous people for election work, and a post-mortem after the vote, now scheduled for October. Elections Canada previously hired the AFN in the run-up to the 2011 election to operate a call centre, for $50,000.

Status Indians, numbering about 850,000 in the 2011 census, have been disenfranchised for most of Canada’s history. They were given the right to vote only in 1960, and turnout rates for federal elections have been relatively low, estimated by Elections Canada at about 45 per cent in the 2011 election compared with 61 per cent for the Canadian population as a whole.

Some First Nations members have chosen not to vote for a level of government they do not recognize as theirs, which may account for some of the lower turnout.

No fixed address

But many critics also point to voter ID problems on reserves, where dwellings often don’t have traditional street addresses, where the housing crunch means some people are unable to have a fixed address, and where identity cards common in non-aboriginal communities just aren’t available, such as gym memberships.

For some, the Fair Elections Act, which became law last June, has raised fresh obstacles.

“It’s clear that changes that have been made to the fair elections process increase the barriers to indigenous people in federal elections,” said Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

At the same time, he said, the Idle No More movement may be able to inspire increased voting by indigenous communities, which have higher numbers of young people who — like in the rest of Canada — typically stay away on voting day.

Éric Grenier, founder of 308.com, dedicated to political polling in Canada, analyzed the 2011 federal election results and concluded that had First Nations turnout been higher, and there was a concerted campaign on reserves to support opposition parties, the Harper government might have been denied a majority.

“If First Nations had wanted to prevent a majority, they did have the numbers to do that,” he said in an interview.

Enright said Elections Canada is also in discussions with Métis, Inuit and other groups about the 2015 election, but there are no formal agreements yet in place.

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With files from Laura Payton