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Electoral Insight – Persons with Disabilities and Elections

Electoral Insight – April 2004

Roundtable on Aboriginal Youth and the Federal Electoral Process

On January 17, 2004, Elections Canada organized, in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education (CIRCLE), a roundtable on Aboriginal youth and the federal electoral process at Carleton University in Ottawa. The majority of the 27 participants were Aboriginal youth, most of whom represented one of the national Aboriginal associations.

Opening session

The roundtable was opened with a prayer by Gordon Williams, an elder from the Peguis First Nation.

John Medicine Horse Kelly, co-director of CIRCLE and co-chair of the roundtable, said this initiative indicated that the question of Aboriginal electoral participation was getting the attention it deserves. Val Courchene, founder of the Dreamcatcher Aboriginal youth conferences and co-chair of the roundtable, said she was honoured to be part of this event.

The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, delivered informal opening remarks. He mentioned that the available research indicates that, even though in his view they have a good deal at stake, Aboriginal people participate in federal elections at lower rates than the population as a whole. In this context, he noted that turnout rates in the referendums sponsored by the Cree and Inuit in northern Quebec prior to the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty were quite high. He added that, if young Aboriginal people participate in significant numbers, elected officials would listen. Mr. Kingsley mentioned that Elections Canada had developed a number of programs to improve the accessibility of the electoral process for Aboriginal people. Certain improvements would be made by the next federal general election. However, a longer term effort was required, in collaboration with Aboriginal communities, particularly concerning education about the electoral process.

Presentations on Aboriginal People and Electoral Participation

Kiera Ladner, of the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, explored the question of why a significant number of Aboriginal people do not vote in federal elections. Dr. Ladner said that she has not voted in the past because of her understanding of treaties and her belief that she belongs to a nation that is "within the purview of Canada by default." In her view, for some Aboriginal youth, voting in federal elections would be a question of participating within an "alien nation." She added, however, that a lot of Aboriginal people do not share this perspective. Dr. Ladner did not offer a specific response to these differing stances, but suggested that a process of dialogue was necessary before Aboriginal participation would be broadened.

The next presentation was given by Jaime Koebel, former president of the Aboriginal Youth Council of the National Association of Friendship Centres and a Master's student at Carleton University. Ms. Koebel said that, given historical events such as denying certain First Nations people the right to vote in federal elections until 1960, it is not surprising that some Aboriginal young people do not vote. However, this does not mean that they are not interested in other political activities. She said that she votes on any occasion when she thinks she can make a difference. Ms. Koebel noted that Aboriginal youth are a rapidly growing community and therefore have considerable power. She mentioned a number of changes that had taken place within the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) since the mid-1980s, adding that youth now count for one third of the votes for the NAFC assembly. To close her presentation, Ms. Koebel stated, "your ideas can transpire into valuable changes."

Discussion groups

Following the initial sessions, participants divided into two discussion groups and addressed the following questions:

Following the group sessions, participants reassembled to hear reports on each group's observations and suggestions. The points presented below, which are taken from the reports from both groups, have been structured according to a number of themes.

The Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, and participants at the roundtable on Aboriginal youth and the federal electoral process.

Barriers to Aboriginal youth voting

Participants identified a number of reasons to explain why a significant proportion of Aboriginal youth do not vote in federal elections.

Relations with the federal government and political parties:

Education/information about the federal electoral process:

Representation within political parties and Parliament:

On the question of why Aboriginal youth should vote or not, most comments fell into one of two groups. A number of participants said that Aboriginal youth should vote because the federal government makes decisions that affect the quality of life of their family and their community. Other participants said that Aboriginal youth should not vote because they do not trust or have faith in the federal government. They added that the best way to influence the government is to be active within their own organizations; in turn, these organizations can make an impact by lobbying members of Parliament and the government.

Proposed actions for Elections Canada and Aboriginal communities

Visibility and involvement with Aboriginal communities:

Education/information about the electoral process:


Political parties:


Parliamentary representation and the electoral system:

Aboriginal communities:


Concluding discussion

Participants at the roundtable on Aboriginal youth and the federal electoral process report back from their group discussion.

During the last session of the roundtable, each participant was invited to share what he or she had learned during the day and any specific suggestions.

One participant said that, in order to better understand the barriers to voting, it would be important to meet Aboriginal youth at the grassroots level. She said it was important to communicate to the government that there are barriers outside the electoral process that discourage young Aboriginal people from voting.

A participant said that the foundation of democracy is people choosing their own destiny and that the choice not to vote is an exercise of democratic rights. Another participant said that the decision to vote or not is a personal choice, but that it is important to make the system accessible and give the opportunity to everyone who wants to vote.

According to one participant, voting is not the only way of bringing about political change. She underlined the importance of working within Aboriginal associations, which can make an impact through their lobbying and other efforts.

A number of participants said they were pleased that Elections Canada had taken this opportunity to bring together and listen to Aboriginal youth. One participant expressed the hope that Elections Canada would continue the dialogue.

Ms. Courchene said that she drew two conclusions from the day's discussions: 1) the importance of education; and 2) the need to come together and for healing to take place, so that Aboriginal youth can move to the next stage.

Mr. Kingsley said that Aboriginal people in Canada have equality with respect to the right to vote. From his perspective, that reflection of equality, the right to vote, does not just concern the individual but society as a whole. He said he had been enriched by each person's participation and that an event such as the roundtable "allows real change to find a beginning."

To conclude, Mr. Williams commended the "quality and vitality" of the youth who were present. He said he had learned from the discussion and that he would transmit that to others through teaching. Looking to the future, he quoted the following saying: "If the result is the same, the difference might just be you."


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.