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Elections Canada says review to improve services for First Nations after 2021 mishaps will take 'a few years'

In the wake of 2021 voting problems in remote northwestern Ontario communities, Elections Canada says it's planning a comprehensive review of its relationship with First Nations, but the work will take "a few years."

Agency says it will offer flexible options for advance and election-day polling stations

Elections Canada signage outside a polling station at West Portal Church in Saskatoon on Sept. 20. In parts of northwestern Ontario, the federal election was riddled with problems for First Nations voters. Elections Canada says it's in the early stages of planning a program review and creating an action plan to better the process for First Nations and remote communities. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Months after 2021 voting problems in remote northwestern Ontario communities, Elections Canada says it's planning a comprehensive review of its relationship with First Nations, but the work will take "a few years."

The electoral agency aims to expand advance polling options and to offer an election-day poll in all First Nations that request one, an official said during a Monday media briefing before the agency tabled its report on the Sept. 20 election.

That work is happening now, so Elections Canada can be ready for the next federal election, something that could happen sooner than later with a minority Liberal government in power.

"That's the bare minimum standard for those communities that want those polling locations," said Susan Torosian, the electoral agency's executive director of public affairs and civic education.The agency will be more flexible in the options it offers for advance polls in First Nations, Torosian added, something that wasn't possible until changes to the Canada Elections Act in 2019.

The expectations of First Nations communities are changing, and we need to adapt to meet those.- Susan Torosian, Elections Canada

Elections Canada is also in the process of assembling a team that will undertake a comprehensive review of the agency's relationship with First Nations, Torosian told Monday's briefing.

"The expectations of First Nations communities are changing, and we need to adapt to meet those."

The intention of that work, Torosian added, is to draft an action plan to improve engagement and the delivery of public education and election services to First Nations and remote communities.

That initiative will be launched soon, but Torosian said it would take "a few years" to complete.

An emailed statement from Elections Canada added that the "long-term effort … will include First Nations staff, stakeholders and experts who are knowledgable and have lived experience to lead and support the exercise."

Otherwise, details on the review were scarce.

Decades of reports already have recommendations

CBC News contacted the Assembly of First Nations for comment on Elections Canada's plans.

The AFN called on the agency to ensure all First Nations that participate in federal elections to be given the same opportunities.

"Polling stations should be available to anyone choosing to vote," the statement said. "Ensuring First Nations have polling stations in their communities is part of our work with Elections Canada to remove barriers to voting."

Chad Cowie of Pamadashkodayang (Hiawatha First Nation) was left with many questions when contacted to discuss the latest information from Elections Canada.

A PhD candidate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Cowie's research is focused on Indigenous participation and impact in federal elections. He pointed to numerous reports and studies from decades past  — including the 1991 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, and others written by Elections Canada itself — that shed light on longstanding issues and offer policy recommendations.

Those recommendations included:

  • Hiring translators to work at polling stations.
  • Increasing the number of polling stations.
  • Engaging with Indigenous communities on an ongoing basis, instead of reaching out just a few weeks before a campaign begins.
Chad Cowie of Pamadashkodayang (Hiawatha First Nation) is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta who's working on his dissertation on Indigenous participation in elections. (Submitted by Chad Cowie)

"There's stuff there already for them to look in and they should've been implementing this, so there's some internal reflection they need to do," he told CBC News, adding Elections Canada should be looking inward to identify ways that institutional racism and assumptions influence their work.

He urged the electoral agency to begin this work immediately, and to be consistently engaged with grassroots workers and Indigenous organizations.

"It has to start at the end of the election, and the work has to be done over four years."

Kenora riding issues to be addressed separately

The commitments from Elections Canada come after reports of voting issues in the Kenora riding in northwestern Ontario during last year's election.

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

  • There were no polling stations on election day in three fly-in First Nations: Pikangikum, Poplar Hill and Cat Lake, despite leaders and community members believing there would be.
  • Voter cards, especially for those on First Nations reserves, had incorrect information about polling stations.

A separate report about the Kenora riding problems will be issued in the coming weeks, a spokesperson with Elections Canada said.

Elections Canada previously apologized to Kenora electors who were unable to vote, and the report tabled in Ottawa on Monday added that "better communication with the communities early on could have prevented the lack of polling stations on election day."