First Nations face real-life barriers to voting in next federal election

Poverty, lack of identification are among hurdles faced by indigenous people when it comes to voting in the federal election.

Poverty, lack of identification among hurdles faced by indigenous people when it comes to voting

Aboriginal woman casts ballot in The Pas, Manitoba. (Chris Glover/CBC)

When the head of the Assembly of First Nations recently laid out his organization's priorities in the upcoming federal election, he re-issued a plea for Indigenous Peoples to head to the polls. 

National Chief Perry Bellegarde also made an admission: he hadn't voted in the last federal election and wasn't sure whether he would vote in this one. Bellegarde reasoned he needed to stay non-partisan as national chief — but also spoke of personal ideologies.

Often, however, there are very practical reasons why so many indigenous people don't vote.

Getting to the polls

"The biggest one is transportation," says Sylvia Boudreau, social worker and organizer of Winnipeg Indigenous Rock the Vote, a non-partisan group that advocates for indigenous voters.

Getting to the polling station could mean walking, driving a vehicle, arranging a ride or if available, using public transit. 

"If you have a single mother that maybe has children in tow, that becomes a barrier for her," said Boudreau.

According to the AFN, some remote or fly-in First Nations might not even have a polling station in the community.

"Jurisdiction is always an issue when having a ballot box on reserve, but there's an issue of accessibility," Bellegarde said.

The right I.D.

In 2015, new voter eligibility rules are in place that could make it more difficult to cast ballots, according to the Assembly of First Nations.

Under the new law, voters can use a driver's license or any other government issued identification that has a photo and address. That excludes Indian Status cards, which only have a photo. 

If you don't have ID with photo and address, you must have two pieces of ID, one of which must include the voter's address.

Bellegarde calls that voter suppression since First Nations in rural or remote areas might not have the necessary documentation to vote.

In recent weeks, Winnipeg Indigenous Rock the Vote has been organizing voter identification clinics.

"People have a hard time navigating the bureaucracies to be able to get the things they need," said organizer Lisa Forbes."Some people, if they live on low income, don't have the money or the resources to do that."
Facebook photo makes fun of new voter identification requirements, which can prove tricky on reserves where houses often don't have traditional street addresses. (Facebook)

Many also point to voter ID problems on reserves, where houses often don't have traditional street addresses and where overcrowding or lack of housing means some people are unable to have a fixed address.

Easing challenges

To ease those challenges, Elections Canada has announced some changes.

The Manitoba Métis Federation recently found out the citizenship cards they issue will be accepted as identification during the 2015 federal election. There are 52,000 eligible Métis voters in Manitoba with citizenship cards. 

First Nation governments, homeless shelters and soup kitchens are now able to issue letters, which can serve as one of the two required pieces of identification. Inuit people can also use cards issued by local Inuit authorities as one of two IDs.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde calls the identification requirements "another hurdle" that keeps people from voting. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
But the national chief calls the identification requirements another hurdle and said in previous elections, chiefs only needed to be at the voting location on election day and personally vouch for the identification of community members.

Now, the national chief says local leaders can only do that once — and only if the voter has secondary identification.

Still, the Assembly of First Nations is encouraging chiefs to partner up with Elections Canada, which has given $475,000 to the AFN to help inform their members about their right to vote and explain how to do it.

Knowing your right to vote

When a leader from the Tseshaht First Nation in B.C. recently contacted Elections Canada in Port Alberni, however, he claims the office wasn't much help. 

Chief Councillor Hugh Braker said he requested posters or pamphlets he could distribute to his people, but he was told he would need to come to office and write down the information himself.

"The Elections Canada office is useless and actually an obstacle to registering," Braker wrote on Facebook.

Since Baker's message was posted on Sept. 2, he claims an official from Elections Canada called him to apologize and offered to mail a package of educational materials to the First Nation.

Still too many hurdles

Jason Tuesday said all of these barriers take a toll on indigenous people. The Anishinaabe musician, who lives in Winnipeg and works in the film industry, is going to vote for the first time in the upcoming federal election.

For a lot of people like me, voting is a luxury.- Jason Tuesday, on the cost of leaving an hourly-wage job to vote

Until recently, he said he had no fixed address and didn't even know which riding he was in. Tuesday also doesn't believe many of his fellow indigenous people will join with him in voting.

"A lot of people who at times can live desperate lives are not engaged at all," he said.

Tuesday said even if you can ask for time off work to go and vote, many people who work for an hourly wage can't afford to do that.

"For a lot of people like me, voting is a luxury," said Tuesday.

The country heads to the polls on Oct. 19, 2015.

About the Author

Tim Fontaine is a Winnipeg-based writer who has worked for APTN National News and CBC Indigenous. You can follow him on Twitter: @anishinaboy.