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Aboriginal Electoral Participation in Canada


Canadian society is confronted by a persistent though not total inequality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.1 On countless metrics, Aboriginal Canadians trail their non-Aboriginal counterparts. The average income of Aboriginals lags behind, while more negative indicators such as childhood mortality and suicide outpace those of non-Aboriginals. To acknowledge this is not to deny progress, nor the potential for greater equality. Electoral participation is another metric on which Aboriginals lag non-Aboriginal Canadians. That citizens in perhaps the greatest need are less likely to avail themselves of democratic opportunities for influence should be a matter of concern.

Electoral participation is the litmus test for the vitality of democratic systems. Consequently, the decline in voter turnout that is being observed in many countries is considered a syndrome of growing democratic malaise. The overall turnout of the Canadian population has been studied extensively. The lower participation rate of various segments of the public have also begun to be investigated. Most notably, youth turnout is the subject of increasing attention. However, the participation of Aboriginal people, especially those residing off reserves, is much less understood. In large part, this is due to the fact that a survey of a representative sample of the Canadian population will yield few Aboriginal electors. Even a large sample such as the 4,000-respondent Canadian Election Study will only result in a few dozen interviews with Aboriginal people.

This report draws upon a previously untapped source of information to increase our knowledge about Aboriginal turnout in Canada. In each federal election since 2004, Elections Canada has conducted post-election surveys containing "oversamples" of more than 500 Aboriginal electors, about half living on reserves and half living off reserves. These surveys offer a tremendous opportunity to shed light on the factors that explain participation and on the ways to stimulate turnout among Aboriginal people. This report takes advantage of the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 surveys to answer five related questions:

  1. What does past work suggest are the general determinants of voter turnout, and how are these thought to differ, if at all, for Aboriginal Canadians?
  2. According to the data collected by Elections Canada, what are the key factors underlying Aboriginal voter turnout?
  3. What are the key factors underlying the registration of Aboriginal electors?
  4. What are the key factors underlying Aboriginal political resources and sense of civic duty?
  5. What policies can Elections Canada pursue to increase voter turnout among Aboriginals?

Our report begins by reviewing literature on voter turnout generally, and then Aboriginal turnout in particular. While comparatively little work has been undertaken in the latter area, we draw out an important question – namely, whether the determinants of Aboriginal turnout differ substantively from those underlying the turnout of non-Aboriginals. In the analyses that follow, we demonstrate that the models which can explain the decision to vote among non-Aboriginals can explain Aboriginal turnout with equal felicity. We demonstrate that this holds for Aboriginal electors both on and off First nations reserves. Next, we show that the determinants of registration are essentially indistinguishable from those of voter turnout, a finding whose implications we revisit in our policy recommendations. We then briefly consider what drives the two key determinants of Aboriginal turnout: political resources and sense of civic duty. Finally, we advance policy recommendations aimed at increasing voter turnout among Aboriginal Canadians.

1 In this report, we use the term "Aboriginal" to refer to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.