Indigenous voter turnout was up — and Liberals may have benefited most

An analysis of the results of the 2015 election shows indigenous turnout likely increased by a significant amount — and the Liberals may have reaped the benefits.

Election numbers suggest turnout increases in ridings with large aboriginal populations

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde adjusts a blanket presented to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following speeches at the Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Que., on Dec. 8. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In the weeks since the last election, the Liberals have launched the process to begin an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and have pledged to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the final report of which was released yesterday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting today with leaders from five national aboriginal organizations as part of an effort to renew the relationship between the federal government and the indigenous people of Canada.

These moves have all followed an election in which anecdotal evidence suggested turnout among indigenous voters was up significantly over the previous vote in 2011.

An analysis of the results of the election suggests the increased turnout was far from anecdotal, and was in fact widespread and significant.

There is also some indication the Liberals may have benefited most from this increase in indigenous voting.

Reports on election day of First Nations reserves running out of ballots gave a clear signal before the votes were even counted that indigenous turnout was up significantly over the previous election. But solid data is hard to come by.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Elections Canada in the past has only been able to estimate indigenous turnout using post-election surveys or by looking at voting that took place on reserves, which excludes a large proportion of the indigenous population. 

Despite imperfect data, it is possible to look at the results of the last election to get an idea of the scale and effect of the increase in indigenous turnout.

Above-average jump in ridings with large aboriginal population

Among all Canadians, turnout increased significantly in the last election, rising to 69.1 per cent from 61.1 per cent, representing an increase of 13 per cent. It was the biggest increase in turnout between elections in over a century.

In the top 10 per cent of ridings with the largest proportion of Canadians claiming aboriginal identity, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, the increase in turnout between the 2011 and 2015 elections averaged 22 per cent.

In the 10 per cent of ridings with the smallest proportion of Canadians with aboriginal identity, the increase in turnout averaged 13 per cent, matching the national average.

This phenomenon was repeated in every province, with the average increase in turnout in ridings with a high proportion of residents claiming aboriginal identity being greater than the provincewide increase in turnout.

In fact, 27 of the 33 ridings in Canada with the largest indigenous populations saw increases in turnout above the national average. All but one of those six exceptions had an aboriginal population of less than one-in-five, whereas the average increase in turnout in ridings with a majority aboriginal-identity population was 36 per cent, almost three times the national average.

In Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, where three-quarters of residents identify as aboriginal, turnout increased from 43 per cent in 2011 to 62 per cent this year. In Nunavut, it increased from 45 per cent to 64 per cent.

Seven of the 10 ridings that experienced the greatest overall increase in turnout had an aboriginal-identity population of 12 per cent or more, and three of them had an aboriginal-identity population of 70 per cent or more.

Of course, these are but persuasive correlations. Other demographic groups also experienced significant increases in turnout. Without any harder data, or the poll-by-poll results from Elections Canada where it would be possible to see the increase in turnout on reserves, it is impossible to say with complete certainty (apart from the ridings which are predominantly indigenous) that these ridings with higher indigenous populations experienced an increase in turnout due to higher turnout among indigenous voters.

But, combined with what we know happened on some reserves, it is unlikely that the two are unrelated.

How did turnout affect seats?

The Liberals clearly benefited from an increase in turnout overall. Some of the ridings they won most unexpectedly featured some of the largest increases in voter turnout. Overall, the Liberals' vote share among all eligible voters (including those who did not vote) increased 2.4 times between 2011 and 2015.

Among the top 10 per cent of ridings with the largest aboriginal-identity populations, however, the Liberals' vote share among all eligible voters increased 4.5 times, compared with an increase of just 1.7 times in the bottom 10 percentile by indigenous population. 

Half of the ridings in the top 10 per cent by indigenous population also happened to be in the top 10 per cent of ridings that experienced the greatest increase in Liberal vote share among all eligible voters, an over-representation in this group of ridings by a factor of five. By comparison, ridings with the highest increase in turnout were over-represented in the ridings in which the Liberals experienced the greatest increase of support only by a factor of two.

Did this increase in indigenous turnout win the Liberals a lot of seats?

Not exactly. The Liberals won just six of the 15 ridings with the largest aboriginal-identity population (the Conservatives and NDP split the rest). But in the seven ridings with at least one-third of the population identifying as aboriginal, the Liberals won four of them and came a close second in the other three as their vote increased significantly.

When Elections Canada releases the full poll-by-poll data from the last election, it will be possible to gauge the increase in turnout on First Nations reserves more precisely, but this will only give an incomplete picture of what happened among indigenous people. From the data that is available, however, it is clear that the campaign to get the indigenous vote out to the polls was likely a great success. 


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.