Elections Canada added 69 on-reserve polling stations in response to ballot shortages

The number of polling sites on First Nations reserves increased this year by more than 20 per cent over 2015, according to Elections Canada.

The agency was caught off-guard by a voter surge on reserves in 2015

Elections Canada says the increase in requests for polling stations on reserves is a sign of heightened voter awareness. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The number of polling sites on First Nations reserves increased this year by more than 20 per cent over 2015, says Elections Canada.

Sixty-nine more reserves had polling stations of their own for the 2019 federal election.

The increase came after Elections Canada was caught off-guard by a surge of people registering to cast ballots in their reserves on voting day in 2015.

Several locations ran out of ballots. That prompted Elections Canada to focus on early engagement and voter registration prior to the recent federal election to avoid "repeating mistakes," said Lisa Drouillard, director of outreach and stakeholder engagement at Elections Canada.

Drouillard said demand for polling on-reserve is growing, adding more First Nations are making band offices and community centres available for polling day and ensuring poll workers are there when ballots are cast.

"It tells a bigger story about the maturity of our relationships with Indigenous communities," she said.

Before the 2019 vote, the Assembly of First Nations worked with Elections Canada by setting up a call centre to reach out to band administrators about setting up polling sites.

As a result, 365 First Nations requested polling stations this year, compared to just 296 in 2015. 

Lisa Drouillard is the director of outreach and stakeholder engagement at Elections Canada. (David Richard/CBC)

Drouillard said the numbers are a sign that voter turnout is increasing on reserves and there's a heightened awareness in Indigenous communities of the importance of the electoral process.

"We still recognize that there are communities that have a position around whether or not participating in federal elections somehow divides their loyalties to their own First Nations, and that is not something that we have any interest in weighing in on," she said.

"It's for every community to decide about how they're going to participate in federal politics. It's for us to make sure that we're ready to support every community that comes in."

Sign of increased awareness, interest

Kenora, Ont. was one of the districts that ran out of ballots in 2015. The riding has 42 reserves, half of which are fly-in communities.

Tania Cameron worked to boost the Indigenous vote four years ago through an initiative called First Nations Rock the Vote. During the 2019 election campaign, Cameron supported her local NDP candidate Rudy Turtle, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nations. Turtle lost to Conservative Eric Melillo.

Cameron said she's pleased to see more reserves requested polling stations this year.

"That speaks to a lot of people getting educated on how to be engaged in this election," Cameron said, adding that the struggle to survive facing many First Nations households sometimes makes voting seem less important.

"If your life on reserve consists of struggling to get clean drinking water or struggling to get ... a safe and healthy home for your family," she said, voting might be "the last priority on your list of things to do."

Elections Canada attributes the rise in Indigenous turnout in part to its voter outreach efforts.

Drouillard said the agency distributed 10,000 pamphlets this year in 16 Indigenous languages. In the last election, only a few hundred were handed out.

"There's definitely an interest in terms of the policies and what the government is doing or not doing to address Indigenous issues," said Marlene Poitras, Alberta regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

"I'm hopeful that First Nations can continue voting so that we can make a difference in terms of having our voices heard and having more input in policy and legislation development."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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