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As Elections Canada looks into First Nation voting errors in Ontario, pressure heats up to get answers

Two politicians are calling for Elections Canada to quickly address possible voter misinformation after some First Nations electors living on reserve in Kenora riding in northwestern Ontario faced problems casting their ballots election day.

Voter card mistakes, no polling stations in some fly-in First Nations among election day issues

The Kenora riding was one of 24 identified by the Assembly of First Nations where First Nations electors could determine the outcome of the vote. But the federal election was riddled with confusion and misinformation for on-reserve voters in the Ontario riding. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Two politicians are calling for Elections Canada to quickly address possible voter misinformation after First Nations electors living on reserve in Kenora riding in northwestern Ontario faced problems casting their ballots election day.

Eric Melillo, who was re-elected Monday as Conservative MP for the riding, and Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for the Kiiwetinoong riding in northwestern Ontario, told CBC News they're worried about reports of voter disenfranchisement in the area.

"We need to ensure everyone has the opportunity to vote, end of story, and Elections Canada needs to rectify that," Melillo said.

Eric Melillo, who was re-elected Monday as Conservative MP for Kenora, says Elections Canada needs to rectify any issues that prevent people from voting. (CBC News)

First Nations only gained the universal right to vote in 1960, Mamakwa added, which is part of the reason many First Nations people lack trust in the electoral process.

"We always encourage First Nations to be part of that democratic process, but when there's barriers, it undermines democracy and it undermines the right that we have to vote."

On election day, two main concerns arose in the Kenora riding:

  • 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 living on First Nations reserves, had incorrect information about polling stations.

Elections Canada has told CBC News they appreciate that electors in some communities have come forward to share their frustrations and are still gathering information on what happened.

Questions unanswered about lack of polling stations

Mamakwa, one of just three Indigenous members of Ontario's provincial parliament, says Elections Canada must provide reasonable accommodations to all electors in the country, including First Nations.

"No matter where you live in Ontario, no matter where you live in Canada, there should be advanced polling stations, and there should be polling stations on election day," Mamakwa said.

CBC News learned from Elections Canada that leaders in Cat Lake, Poplar Hill and Pikangikum had requested advance polls in their First Nations, because there was concern many residents would be away on Sept. 20 due to participation in traditional hunting activities on the land.

Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong riding, which encompasses much of northwestern Ontario, says Elections Canada must take additional steps to build relationships and trust with First Nations. (Logan Turner / CBC)

But according to Mamakwa, Elections Canada initially rejected that request from at least one First Nation.

"It is with concern that I have recently learned that Elections Canada turned down a request from Cat Lake First Nation to host an advance poll in the community," Mamakwa wrote in a letter shared with CBC News to Stéphane Perrault, Canada's chief electoral office. That letter was dated Sept. 3, more than two weeks before election day.

"As you are aware, barriers to registration and voting in elections are higher in fly-in First Nations than elsewhere and it is disappointing to learn that the citizens of Cat Lake will now experience additional barriers," the letter continued.

We always encourage First Nations people to be part of that democratic process, but when there's barriers, it just undermines the democracy and the right that we have to vote.- Sol Mamakwa, NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong riding in northern Ontario

Mamakwa said it was after he wrote this letter, calling on Elections Canada to maintain their "commitment to accessible voting for all Canadians" and provide "alternate voting options for First Nations with similar needs for accommodation," that he heard the federal agency responsible for elections granted the request for advance polls in the three First Nations.

However, on election day, leaders and residents in the First Nations took to social media to express shock that Elections Canada holding advance polls in the communities meant they wouldn't get a polling station on election day.

A voter card from a Pikangikum resident, shared to social media, showed they were told there would be a polling station in the First Nation on Sept. 20.

A voter card from a resident of Pikangikum First Nation, shared to social media, incorrectly shows there would be a polling station on election day in the First Nation. Elections Canada confirmed there was one advance poll on Sept. 13 in Pikangikum, and no polling station open on election day. (Tania Cameron / Twitter)

Elections Canada spokesperson Réjean Grenier was asked late Monday if the three First Nations were told they would only be given one day for polling and what information about voting was shared with residents of the First Nations.

At the time, he was unable to answer those questions.

An updated statement from Elections Canada sent to CBC News on Friday said they are still looking in the situation and "will report back on our findings."

Calls for action from Elections Canada

Tania Cameron, who has been leading efforts for years in Kenora riding to increase First Nations voter turnout, told said she was "quite disturbed" by the level of confusion and misinformation that took place during this year's federal election.

In 2015, Cameron led the non-partisan Rock the Indigenous Vote initiative to increase voter registration, and has been working for the NDP since 2019 to support Indigenous candidates across Canada.

Tania Cameron is calling on Elections Canada to hire more Indigenous people to help the federal agency be more prepared to support First Nations electors. (Tania Cameron)

She told CBC News that she's collecting the names of people in the riding who weren't able to vote, and will write Elections Canada. 

Among the suggestions she's making to address these persistent barriers include that:

  • Elections Canada's local returning officer build relationships with the 40 First Nations included in Kenora riding so they are ready before an election campaign is called.
  • Elections Canada hire more Indigenous people across Canada who know their communities.

In a written statement, Elections Canada said they know Indigenous electors and people living on First Nation reserves "face unique barriers to voting" and "are committed to addressing those barriers."

The statement added they deploy a variety of outreach efforts to Indigenous communities, including the provision of community relations officers to work with local leaders, collaboration with "national and regional Indigenous organizations," and the creation of advertising campaigns and educational tools to share information about voter registration and voting options.

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