The federal NDP candidate running in the Ontario riding of Kenora has written Elections Canada urging it to ensure voters in remote First Nations in the riding don’t face the same obstacles to casting ballots that surfaced in the 2015 election.
Grassy Narrows First Nations Chief Rudy Turtle sent a letter to Canada’s chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault on Thursday asking how the electoral agency plans to avoid issues like shortages of ballots and the delayed opening of voting stations in the upcoming vote.
“First Nations living in the electoral district of Kenora have faced serious barriers to exercising their democratic rights in the past, especially during the 2015 election, as a result of administrative failures,” said the letter, provided to CBC News.
“I look forward to hearing how Elections Canada plans on addressing these issues in the current election.”
Turtle could not be reached for comment.
The NDP said in a statement that the party raised voting issues in the region with Elections Canada during the last election.
“[The] letter is both a call to ensure that Elections Canada does what it takes and an opportunity for them to share with us the work they may have already done to ensure that every First Nations person in the riding gets the chance to make their voice heard,” said the statement.
Turtle raised concerns over the shortage of ballots in the First Nations of Eabametoong, Onigaming, Whitefish Bay and Shoal Lake 40 in the riding in the last election.
“In two communities this shortfall was addressed by photocopying ballots, however these kinds of situations undermine confidence in the electoral process and can result in excessive wait times,” wrote Turtle.
“In some instances where such additional ballots were produced, voters faced long lines and confusion, ultimately resulting in disenfranchised voters leaving the polling station before being provided the opportunity to cast a ballot.”
Polling station closed after running out of ballots
During the 2015 election, 14 on-reserve polling places in nine electoral districts ran low on ballots, according to Elections Canada.
In most cases, voting was interrupted from a few minutes to about a half hour, with one station in Lake St. Martin, Man., shutting down before the polls closed because it ran out of ballots, preventing about 13 voters from casting a ballot, according to Elections Canada.
Turtle’s letters raised concerns about the situation in Northwest Angle 37, where parts of the community had no polling station, and in Windigo Island where voters would have to travel over an hour by boat to vote.
One of the issues that also surfaced was over information given to First Nations voters, said the letter. A voter in Big Trout Lake received a voter information card telling him to vote in the community of Wawakapewin, despite there being a polling station in his own community, wrote Turtle.
The letter said there were also concerns about the delay in opening polling stations in the last election in places like Eabametoong and Turtle suggested Elections Canada should provide advance polling in larger rural and remote First Nations and provide mail-in ballots to smaller communities.
Elections Canada says it’s working to remove barriers
Elections Canada said in a statement that it had received Turtle’s letter and that the agency conducted a “thorough administrative review” following the last election and made several changes.
The statement said the agency has improved its ballot forecasting formula to increase the “cushion for extra ballots in remote areas,” along with upping its registration rates on reserve and maintaining continual outreach to First Nations.
“We are aware that Indigenous electors face more barriers to registering and voting in federal elections,” said the statement.
Elections Canada has also sent a team to Kenora-area First Nations three times since February 2018, running workshops and hosting activities on the electoral process and to improve ways of sharing election information.
The agency is now shipping information packages in English and Ojibway to the Treaty 3 organization to distribute to communities at the upcoming fall assembly in early October.
Five Kenora riding-area First Nations are also among 87 Indigenous communities, across 27 electoral districts, that are part of a recently-created pilot project to deal with specific demands and barriers to voting.
Kenora is one of the ridings identified by the Assembly of First Nations where the Indigenous population could tip the electoral outcome. The riding has an Indigenous population of about 25,162 eligible voters.
The 2015 election saw a spike in on-reserve voter turnout, which hit 61.5 per cent. The on-reserve turnout in 2011 was about 47 per cent, according to Elections Canada data.