Thunder Bay

Remote First Nations see more barriers in voter card errors, polling station confusion

A slew of voting problems in remote First Nations in the tightly contested northwestern Ontario riding of Kenora have some First Nation electors feeling they were deprived of their right to vote.

'It makes me feel like I don't matter,' First Nations resident in Kenora riding says

Problems with voting, especially for First Nations electors on reserve, have marred election day in the hotly contested northwestern Ontario riding of Kenora. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

For Angela Petiquan of Wabauskang, a First Nation in the Kenora riding in northwestern Ontario, election day this year was going to be an important one. 

She's voted in every election she can remember, but hearing how close the race was expected to be in Kenora, Petiquan wanted to ensure her voice and vote counted.

After a long day of driving and running errands, she stopped at her house and checked her voter registration card one last time. What she saw surprised her.

The card told Petiquan her polling station was in Slate Falls First Nation, about 260 kilometres — or roughly a six-hour drive — northeast of her home. The voter registration card for her son, who lives with Petiquan, said his polling station was in Vermilion Bay, a town more than 60 kilometres south of their home.

The registration card for a third citizen living in Wabauskang, which was also shared with CBC News, showed a polling station in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, a fly-in First Nation hundreds of kilometres northeast of the First Nation.

The correct polling station, Petiquan later learned, was in Vermilion Bay. But after much frustration and tired from a long day, Petiquan and her son decided they didn't have the energy to drive another hour each way to cast their votes.

Angela Petiquan of Wabauskang First Nation, in the tightly contested northwestern Ontario riding of Kenora, said she's been made to feel her vote doesn't matter because of errors on her voter registration card and the distance she had to travel to vote. (Submitted by Angela Petiquan)

Instead, Petiquan was left upset and with a bunch of questions about the whole process.

"How come there's no polling station in [nearby] Ear Falls? Or how come they didn't come set up a polling station in this First Nation?" Petiquan told CBC News.

"It makes me feel like I don't matter, like my vote doesn't count," she said. "It's like, you know, 'We'll set it far from you so you don't get the vote, and it's not easily accessible for me to go vote.'"

The resident of Wabauskang added many people in the First Nation, including her son, don't have a vehicle or a driver's licence, making it even more difficult for them to drive all the way to the polling station.

Elections Canada spokesperson Réjean Grenier told CBC News there are always mistakes on voter cards, and there are additional challenges in First Nations because some "don't have the same kind of addresses that we would have in an urban area."

But voter card errors is just one of the issues that have made it more difficult or virtually impossible for some First Nations residents in the Kenora riding to vote in this election.

No polling stations in 3 First Nations

For three remote, fly-in First Nations — Cat Lake, Poplar Hill and Pikangikum — there simply was no polling station for residents to vote on election day.

According to Grenier, when the election was called, the leaders from each of the First Nations expressed concern that many of their residents would be out of the community for hunting and other land-based activities, and thus unable to vote.

Negotiations between the three First Nations and the local Elections Canada officials ensued, and Grenier said an agreement was reached to hold advance polls in the fly-in communities on Sept. 13.

Leaders and residents in the three First Nations have since taken 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.

Tania Cameron, who has been working to address barriers for First Nations voters on reserve for years, and has worked on behalf of the New Democratic Party since 2019, told CBC News she's been flooded with messages from people living in all three First Nations who were in the community on Monday.

"There was no indication that there would not be polling stations in those communities just because they got an advance poll," she said. "And that's ridiculous, because advance polls were held in towns and cities across Canada, and those towns and cities still get a polling station on election day."

Tania Cameron, a former NDP candidate for the federal Kenora riding, says the errors on voter cards and lack of polls in some fly-in First Nations on election day amount to disenfranchisement. (Tania Cameron)

The three First Nations make up more than 1,600 electors, Cameron added, and the potential loss of their votes is especially important in the hotly contested riding of Kenora, where Conservative incumbent Eric Melillo won by less than 1,200 votes in 2019.

The riding has historically been a tight three-way race, and Melillo is facing stiff competition from first-time NDP candidate Janine Seymour and Liberal candidate David Bruno, as well as the Green Party's Remi Rheault and People's Party of Canada candidate Craig Martin.

Cameron said this amounts to the disenfranchisement of First Nations electors.

"Is this systemic racism? Is this voter suppression," Cameron said. "These First Nations were not given a polling station. How is that democratic? And that's an insult to First Nations people."

Grenier was asked 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.

He said Elections Canada was investigating the situation.

But 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 that 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 there was no polling station open on election day. (Tania Cameron / Twitter)

Meanwhile, the polling station in Grassy Narrows First Nation did not open until nearly 2 p.m. ET because trained staff did not show up on Monday morning. 

Grenier said poll workers did not show up to a second First Nation in the Kenora riding. Elections Canada was not able to immediately name the First Nation, but it was described as a fly-in community, and the electoral organization did not send additional workers to the community in order to open a polling station.

Cameron, who ran in the Kenora riding for the NDP in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, said she's never seen an election so marred by "surprising and unexpected glitches."

Cameron told CBC News, "I'm not even sure what the next steps are … I don't even know what the voter turnout will look like now here in the Kenora riding, but if an appeal has to be made, then we'll have to cross that bridge when we get there."