Sudbury

How many Indigenous voters in northern Ontario will cast a ballot in this 'reconciliation election'

There are big questions about voter turnout in this COVID-19 election, as there are on how many Indigenous voters in northern Ontario will come out following a campaign that talked about reconciliation more than any in recent memory.

On reserve turnout in the northeast in 2019 was 42 per cent, a big drop from 63 per cent in 2015

On-reserve Indigenous voter turnout in northeastern Ontario tumbled down to 42 per cent in the 2019 federal election, after a historic high of 63 per cent in 2015. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For only the second time in his life, Paul Trudeau will spend part of federal election day in a polling booth. 

"It's a hard vote for me if you can't trust anybody out there," says the 62-year-old from Sagamok First Nation, on the north shore of Lake Huron in northern Ontario. 

"It's taken me years and years and years to figure this out that a non-vote is a vote for somebody you don't want there."

Trudeau, who like many Indigenous voters sees Canada as a foreign country, says he's thinking more about future generations when deciding how to vote. 

"I try to remain positive, but it almost doesn't really matter too much who goes there. For us anyway," he says. 

"For me, I'm 62 I could care less. But I have sons who want to live here. I have great-grandchildren who are coming. Things have to change."

One thing that's changed is there is an Indigenous candidate on the ballot in his riding of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing.

Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier is running for the Liberal party in the riding that's been held by New Democrat Carol Hughes since 2008. 

Carolyn Peltier, 46, of Sagamok, is proud to vote in every federal election, but hears very others in her community talking about the campaign. (Erik White/CBC )

Carolyn Peltier, 46, of Sagamok, thought it was "pretty brave" for Peltier to throw his name in and is hopeful he can bring change to Ottawa.

"If you don't vote, you don't have a say or shouldn't have a say. But yeah I vote every year," she says.

That isn't true for many other Indigenous voters in northeastern Ontario.

While a majority live off reserve, those voting patterns are difficult to track.

For votes cast on First Nations in the northeast, turnout was 45 per cent in 2011, soared up to 63 per cent in 2015 in a drive against some unpopular policies of the Conservative government, but then dropped down to 42 per cent in 2019.

Indigenous issues and reconciliation have been more in the spotlight in this campaign than any recent election, being discussed in every candidates debate in the region and frequently mentioned to candidates knocking on doors.

Jennifer Constant, a councillor with Mattagami First Nation, hopes its not just "the flavour of the month" after the discovery of residential school graves this spring. 

Jennifer Constant is a councillor in Mattagami First Nation who in the past has organized voter registration clinics, but says citizens don't seem as engaged in this election. (Erik White/CBC )

"The concern would be that it's just the topic that's trending, which would be a sad case," said Constant, who tries to get out the vote in her community every election. 

"I do truly hope that if any candidate is speaking about that, that they're speaking from their hearts and that they're serious about making change, whether they get in or not."

Marek McLeod has been waiting for this election day most of his young life.

The 18-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, who is a citizen of Thessalon First Nation, is excited to vote for the first time. 

"It was me that made my parents vote. They just felt that politics didn't work for them. It's always about the people in power. It's not about the common Joe," he says.

18-year-old Marek McLeod of Sault Ste. Marie is excited to vote for the first time and feels all Indigenous people should cast a ballot in the federal election. (Erik White/CBC )

McLeod, who asked a live question to the party leaders during the televised English language debate, says he respects Indigenous voters who feel odd choosing a government for Canada.

"What I say to that is we aren't quite there yet. We aren't nation-to-nation yet. So, you're still under the ward of Canada, vote in Canadian elections," he says.

"Once we get to that point we'll have that discussion, but right now, you gotta vote."

Apart from Indigenous voters, there are questions about whether turnout in general will be affected by COVID-19 concerns and possible lineups at polling stations.

Voter turnout for the advance polls in the seven ridings of northeastern Ontario was way up this year, with 99,976 ballots cast during the four-day period, almost 30,000 more than in 2019. 

There could also be delays in getting the results Monday night, with a higher number of mail-in and "special ballots" to be counted. 

So far in the northeast, nearly 20,000 of these ballots have been requested across seven ridings and close to 16,000 of them returned, which is about 5,000 more than in the last election.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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