Saskatoon

Indigenous Vote Sask aims to boost voter registration, turnout

The Harper government's Fair Elections Act was just the push Glenda Abbott said she needed to encourage indigenous people to exercise their right to vote. "I think there's a lot of unfairness happening," Abbott said.

Taking up role Elections Canada forced to surrender

Organizers Melody Wood and Glenda Abbott set up for volunteer training session. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)

The Harper government's Fair Elections Act was just the push Glenda Abbott said she needed to encourage indigenous people to exercise their right to vote.

"I think there's a lot of unfairness happening," Abbott said.

She and her group Indigenous Vote Sask are taking on the task Elections Canada used to do — but is barred from doing in this election.

Abbott and fellow organizer Melody Wood are in the throes of recruiting volunteers who will help as many First Nations, Métis and Inuit people as possible register to vote.

She concedes it's a huge undertaking, but what has happened in the past four years is spurring her on.

"I just realized that we need to elect the right people who are going to represent our needs for the environment and in a lot of areas," Abbott said.

Identifying barriers to registration

Curtis Peeteetuce gets the message out at Indigenous Vote Sask. (CBC)

She and Wood are hoping to partner with larger, better-resourced groups such as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

For now, they are focused on identifying barriers to registration outside urban areas, particularly regarding voter identification, and trying to get people registered by mail. 

"Hopefully with community support as well as our volunteers, together we can make things happen in communities," she added.

Monday night they held a "train the trainers" type of gathering with prospective volunteers, familiarizing them with the Elections Canada web site.

In the last federal election 9.3 million people did not vote. I was shocked when I heard that number- Curtis Peeteetuce, Indigenous Vote Sask volunteer

The volunteers will then be matched up with communities that want to boost the number of registered voters and get them out to the polls.

Curtis Peeteetuce is one of the volunteers.

"Back in the last federal election 9.3 million people did not vote. I was shocked when I heard that number and I thought 'that's a lot of my friends, could be a lot of my family, and a lot of people in my neighbourhood as well,' " he said.

For his part, he votes in every election. He does it for his five-year-old son.

"Indigenous people in Canada have a rich culture, language and history. And it's important for him to be connected on all those fronts," Peeteetuce explained. "I think having the right to vote, being aware of our democracy, and just the overall milieu of the Canadian front is really important for him. And so I exercise that through my own right."

John Lagimodiere, publisher and editor of Eagle Feather News, said there are historical reasons for low voter turnout among aboriginal people. Before 1960, First Nations people had no right to vote in federal elections.

"There was a disconnect there, and it was always seen as white man's elections, and not impacting their community" Lagimodiere explained. "But in the last five years with Idle No More and people putting the fact that a bad government policy leads to bad housing on-reserve, they're making that connection."

He sees the potential for a higher aboriginal turnout to affect the outcome in two ridings: Desnethe-Misinippi-Churchill River in the north, and the urban riding of Saskatoon West.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, reckons seven ridings in Saskatchewan could see an impact. In particular, he would add Regina Qu'Appelle and Lloydminster to Lagimodiere's list.

"We tell our people and we tell all Canadians that this election is about closing the gap that exists between First Nations peoples' quality of life and everybody else's. It's huge," Bellegarde said.

On Wednesday, Aug. 19 Indigenous Vote Sask is holding another volunteer voter registration training session at 6 p.m. CST at 814 20th Street W.

Meanwhile, another group has organized a voter registration clinic for Friday, Aug. 14 at Station 20 West from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. CST. People are asked to bring ID. One piece should have the person's name on it. A second piece should have their name and address.

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