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Elections Canada apologizes to Ontario First Nations voters unable to cast ballots

After a federal election riddled with problems for First Nations voters in northwestern Ontario's Kenora riding, Elections Canada has issued an apology "to any elector who was unable to vote as a result."

No election-day polling stations in 3 fly-in First Nations, voting card errors in Kenora riding Sept. 20

Several issues for First Nations voters, especially those living on reserve in Kenora riding in northwestern Ontario, become apparent quickly on election day in September. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

After a federal election riddled with problems for First Nations voters in northwestern Ontario's Kenora riding, Elections Canada has issued an apology "to any elector who was unable to vote as a result."

The electoral agency said it is still working to get a complete picture of what happened in Kenora and is looking into whether the problems are indicative of wider issues across Canada.

For the Sept. 20 vote, two main concerns arose in the riding, which was won by Conservative incumbent Eric Melillo:

  • There were no polling stations on election day in three fly-in First Nations, including Pikangikum, Poplar Hill and Cat Lake.
  • Voter cards, especially for those on First Nations reserves, had incorrect information about polling stations.

"Any time an elector misses their opportunity to vote, it is something we take seriously — something we take personally — and we're working to ensure this doesn't happen again," said Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier in an emailed statement.

But many people familiar with the problems this federal election in Kenora say they're waiting for concrete actions to ensure they don't happen again.

In an updated email, a spokesperson with Elections Canada has said their goal is to ensure electors in remote communities have at minimum an election day poll.

The statement says the agency's goal is also to provide advance polls for one or more days "where capacity and voting locations are available within the community."

The investigation continues

In its statement to CBC News, Elections Canada said three fly-in First Nations in Kenora riding requested advance polls because the majority of their communities would be involved in traditional hunting activities on the land on Sept. 20.

While the returning officer initially rejected the requests, something many have said should not have happened in the first place, they later reversed their decision and arranged for a one-day advance poll in each of the three First Nations on Sept. 13.

Elections Canada then decided to cancel the polling station on election day in the three First Nations "based on the understanding of the situation in the three communities," according to Gauthier.

Because the decision was made after voter cards were already issued, Gauthier said, they could not update them, and acknowledged several electors were thus unaware the in-person poll was moved.

It was a decision that also surprised Cat Lake Chief Russell Wesley.

Wesley told CBC News when he returned from the community hunt a few days after the election that he was confused when an elder approached him and said there was no election day poll.

Chief Russell Wesley of Cat Lake says he hasn't heard from Elections Canada since before the Sept. 20 election, despite the fact his First Nation did not receive a polling station that day. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"For the remaining [30 per cent of our community] membership that would be in the community, we expected the polls to go forth on Sept. 20," Wesley said.

While Elections Canada said it is still investigating what happened, including talking to the returning officer and the chiefs of the affected First Nations, Wesley told CBC News he hasn't heard anything from Elections Canada since before the election, and certainly nothing "that represents an apology."

'We can't have the same scenario'

Remote and isolated First Nations face unique barriers to voting, Wesley said, including the high level of movement of their citizens.

He said there are up to 10 people in Cat Lake First Nation alone that are being transferred in and out of the community every day for medical reasons, and they are a small community.

"They need to address these things, specifically where it relates to minorities, remote First Nations and accommodations procedure for them.

"We can't be having the same scenario happen again."

Tania Cameron recently met with Election Canada officials to share her suggestions to improve engagement with First Nations voters in Kenora riding. (Tania Cameron)

Tania Cameron has also been pushing for changes to Elections Canada's engagement with First Nations people living on reserve for years.

In 2015, she ran the non-partisan Indigenous Rock the Vote initiative to increase voter turnout and in the years since had been working specifically with the NDP.

Cameron told CBC News that Indigenous people should be hired to work between elections to build relationships and trust with First Nations.

There should also be translators who speak the local language dialects available at polling stations, Cameron said.

Most importantly, she said, all First Nations should have access to both advance polling stations and polls on election day, regardless of their size.

I want to be satisfied and see with my own eyes that there are measures that will be brought into place.- Tania Cameron

"I want to know that there's concrete actions being done within [Elections Canada's] system to make sure this never happens again, and I want to be satisfied and see with my own eyes that there are measures that will be brought into place."

After a recent meeting with Elections Canada officials, Cameron said, she's optimistic that could happen, but will wait to see the agency's full investigation results before passing judgment.

Others remain skeptical that meaningful change will take place.

Call for resources for change

Brittany Luby, an associate professor of history at the University of Guelph in Ontario, and is of Anishinaabe descent, said the issues in Kenora riding echo "a much longer history of Indigenous voter suppression in Canada."

The Canadian government only granted "status Indians" the right to vote in 1960. 

But other inequities remained, Luby said. Indigenous people are overincarcerated, yet it wasn't until 2002 that the Supreme Court ruled felony disenfranchisement was unconstitutional, she said.

Brittany Luby, a First Nations associate professor of history with the University of Guelph in Ontario, says the issues in Kenora riding echo 'a much longer history of Indigenous voter suppression in Canada.' (University of Guelph)

"Fast forward to 2021: gaps in critical infrastructure — like reliable high-speed internet — make it harder for Indigenous voters to access information about federal candidates and party platforms than non-Indigenous voters," Luby added.

The associate professor said that for these reasons and others, multiple generations of Indigenous people distrust Canada's voting system. She called for more resources between elections to identify and eliminate structural barriers to electoral participation.

Chadwick Cowie of Pamadashkodayang (Hiawatha First Nation), a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta who's focusing his dissertation on Indigenous participation in elections, said he wasn't surprised to hear about the election-day issues in Kenora, given the election was in the middle of a traditional harvesting period.

"This is an issue that doesn't just extend to Kenora. You'll find the same issue in the northern ridings in Quebec, probably in Timmins-James Bay and Nunavut," Cowie said, noting the high proportion of Indigenous electors in those regions.

He added these issues as well as possible accommodations have long been documented, since before the 1991 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing.

For real change, Cowie said, the federal government needs to provide sufficient resources to Elections Canada and ensure they're directed to helping First Nations.