Sask. groups work to encourage inmates to vote in federal election

There's one place you likely won't see federal election candidates door knocking or debating  — inside a jail or penitentiary.

Groups hope to improve on 51% inmate voter turnout in 2015 federal election

Nicholas Blenkinsop, supervising lawyer with Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC), says inmates still face many barriers trying to vote in federal and provincial elections. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

There's one place you likely won't see federal election candidates door knocking or debating — inside a jail or penitentiary.

A 2002 Supreme Court ruling gave all inmates the right to vote, but some say they still face barriers. A coalition of Saskatchewan community groups is hoping to make things easier.

"If we are a society that says we're democratic, and we put in our constitution that everybody has the right to vote, then we should walk our talk," said Nicholas Blenkinsop, supervising lawyer with Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City, or CLASSIC.

CLASSIC and other community groups, such as the Elizabeth Fry Society, have written letters to every penitentiary, jail and halfway house in Saskatchewan offering to help.

They also sent a package that includes:

  • A pamphlet telling prisoners how they can cast their ballot.
  • A step-by step guide to the process.
  • An application form to apply for their special ballot.
  • Signs for staff to post where the voting station is located.

They're also encouraging corrections officials to distribute information on candidates and the parties' policies.

In order to vote, inmates need to fill out a special form to register. They and corrections officials also need to determine the inmate's riding, which is normally his or her residence before being incarcerated.

For some, that could mean familiar Saskatchewan ridings such as Saskatoon West or Cypress Hills-Grasslands. But in Saskatchewan federal institutions like the Prince Albert Penitentiary or the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge near Maple Creek, inmates might be from Halifax or Yellowknife.

Prisoners do not vote on election day, but on a designated day ahead of time — for this year's election, Oct. 9 (voting day for the general population is Oct. 21). Polling stations are set up in each institution.

'Bring them back into community'

Blenkinsop said it may take extra effort, but it's worth it.

"We build a safer nation for everyone if we work to bring them back into community in a way that supports them and works to have them contribute to society," Blenkinsop said.

Blenkinsop and Shawn Fraser, the Saskatchewan director of the John Howard Society, said a country can be judged on the way it respects human rights for all its citizens.

"It's what makes Canada Canada," Fraser said. "We're a constitutionally based democracy. It's important that we uphold the rights enshrined in our charter, and that we get out and vote."

The federal election vote for most Canadians takes place Oct. 21. Inmates in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre and other jails and penitentiaries across Canada cast their ballots on Oct. 9. (Jason Warick/CBC)

With the 2002 Supreme Court ruling, inmates became the last category of Canadians of legal voting age to be granted full voting rights.

Women couldn't vote in federal elections before 1918, and even at that point, voting rights were only extended to some women. Asian men and women were granted voting rights in 1948. For the first time in 1960, First Nations people could vote without losing their treaty rights.

Inmates present a potentially large block of voters — in 2017-2018, there were 38,786 adults in federal or provincial/territorial custody, according to Statistics Canada.

But inmate turnout across the country in the 2015 election was 50.5 per cent, compared to a 68 per cent for the general population.

Blenkinsop, Fraser and others are hoping to improve that number, and Blenkinsop said federal and provincial officials have been receptive.

A Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice official said they've been in touch with the community groups and things are proceeding on schedule.


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