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March 31, 2022 – Summaries of appearances on PROC's study on the inclusion of Indigenous languages on federal election ballotsCEO appearance on the Main Estimates 2022-2023 before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs

Meeting Information


Inclusion of Indigenous Languages on Federal Election Ballots

  • Karliin Aariak, Languages Commissioner of Nunavut
  • Aluki Kotierk, President, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
  • Cédric Gray-Lehoux & Shikuan Vollant, Spokespersons, First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Youth Network

Opening Statements

Note on language: throughout the meeting, witnesses used the term "Inuktut" to refer to Inuit languages. This term is inclusive of all dialects used in Nunavut, and as such is used in the notes below.

Karliin Aariak, Languages Commissioner of Nunavut (LCN)

  • Elections Canada (EC) has failed to comply with the Inuit Language Protection Act (ILPA), territorial legislation that requires that Inuktut be used in full equality with other official languages.
  • Ms. Aariak's office has notified EC of this, through the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO).
  • In the last election, for example, Ms. Aariak's office received reports that information about advanced polling dates and instructions for special ballots were not provided in Inuit languages.
  • Ms. Aariak also received complaints that syllabics were not used on the ballot itself, as is the case in all municipal and territorial elections in Nunavut.
  • Recommendations: 1) That the Canada Elections Act (CEA) be amended so that both roman orthography and Inuktut syllabics are provided on the ballot in Nunavut; 2) That EC should include Inuktut on all signage and materials at least as prominently as English and French; and 3) That EC should implement a policy / procedure specific to Nunavut to ensure EC complies with the ILPA and takes meaningful measures to remove barriers to Nunavut electors.

Aluki Kotierk, President of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI)

  • Ms. Kotierk noted that based on the last census, Inuktut is the mother tongue of the majority of people in Nunavut, more than either English or French, a fact that makes this territory unique.
  • While it's commendable that EC has taken some initiative in recent elections, EC's efforts have been ad hoc and have depended too much on the staff of the day.
  • As a meaningful next step, legislation is required to ensure Inuktut is on the federal ballot.
  • Ms. Kotierk also supports the inclusion of Indigenous languages on ballots in EDs with a substantial presence of Indigenous peoples and giving the voters the right to request a special ballot in an Indigenous language of their choice, no matter where they may live.

Shikuan Vollant, Spokesperson for the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Youth Network (FNQLYN)

  • Mr. Vollant supports any initiatives to strengthen and revitalize languages, however ballot translation is not of high priority to him.
  • The reasons for low voter turnout in some Indigenous communities are complex, and no study reviewed to date has found ballot translation to be a solution for voter abstention.
  • Expressed concern about the possible environmental harm of producing paper ballots in many more languages across the country.
  • Although the witness understands the good intention of these efforts, the inclusion of Indigenous languages on ballots would cost a lot of money that would be better invested elsewhere to revitalize Indigenous languages more directly and in more cost-effective ways.

Questions by Subject

Recent EC Recommendations (use of facsimiles, 1% threshold of language speakers)

When asked for her thoughts about the proposed use of a facsimile behind the voting screen (per the CEO's recent recommendations to the committee on this topic), Ms. Aariak responded/ reiterated that it is not the same as the use of Inuktut on the ballot itself, and that she believes that having one's language on the ballot itself is more likely to increase voter participation.

When asked to speak to the potential challenges of providing Indigenous languages on ballots across other Canadian jurisdictions, Ms. Aariak explained that in her own jurisdiction, language rights are territorially legislated and apply to all federal agencies / departments in Nunavut. She reiterated her desire to see an EC policy / procedure specific to Nunavut that allows for the use of Inuit languages on the ballot, in roman orthography and Inuit syllabics. With respect to Indigenous languages in other jurisdictions, Ms. Aariak said that she could see the facsimile option working.

When asked for her response to the CEO's concerns about the difficulty of printing ballots on short timelines, Ms. Aariak said that even if there are challenges, this should be figured out, and that she is not aware of any printing / logistical issues in previous territorial and municipal elections.

In response to a question about the use of a 1% threshold of language speakers in a riding to provide ballots in that language, Mr. Vollant responded that there are 11 different Indigenous languages spoken in Québec, some of which have different sub-dialects between the 43 communities in Québec. This could make it difficult for EC to ensure that text is written and understood the same way in different communities. Mr. Vollant also explained that there is no direct term for "vote" in his Innu language, so to spell this out on elections materials in syllabics might be more confusing than helpful. As a result of these potential complexities and challenges, Mr. Vollant would prefer to see resources allocated to other forms of language revitalization.

Voter Turnout

When asked to explain how having Inuktut on the ballot, or allowing Nunavut residents to write in Inuktut on a special ballot, might improve voter turnout, Ms. Kotierk explained that Inuit people have only been able to vote federally since the 1960s, and having voting available in one's own language would make many people feel more included. She also mentioned that often it would allow Inuktut speakers to confirm their vote for themselves rather than being instructed informally by others to simply mark the 'first candidate' or 'middle candidate.' Ms. Aariak argued that in Nunavut, the language is already expected and materials are already available in syllabics in territorial and municipal elections, so having the language on ballots would help increase participation. She also recognized that EC has taken initiatives, but they do not include languages on the ballot.

One Member asked Ms. Aariak and Ms. Kotierk to estimate voter turnout figures in recent municipal and territorial elections, given that turnout in Nunavut in the last federal election was quite low at 38%. Both witnesses said they did not have exact figures and would provide these as part of their written statements.

Regarding voter turnout, Mr. Vollant mentioned that as a part of their written statements, the FNQLYN will submit a paper written by a colleague on this topic. He later added that no research shows that including Indigenous languages on ballots would increase the vote, and the way to increase voter turnout in Indigenous communities is to give people a reason to want to vote.

Prioritization of Other Forms of Indigenous Language Revitalization

In response to the testimony of his fellow witnesses, Mr. Vollant commented that their differing positions is not evidence of conflict. Rather, he said it is evidence that different Indigenous groups have differing needs and priorities and reaffirmed his respect, despite their differing positions on the question of ballots.

When asked to expand upon his position that language on ballots is not a priority, Mr. Vollant explained that people cannot make use of ballots in Indigenous languages unless they are fluent, and that building and maintain fluency require significant resources. Regarding a question about what activities might be a better use of resources for language revitalization, Mr. Vollant emphasized that language is most easily learned in the home, and that for any language to be healthy, social support needs to be in place so that Indigenous people / families are healthy and feel comfortable embracing their identities.

Nunavut as a Unique Jurisdiction

When asked how Canada's obligations under The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) might apply to this issue of ballots, Ms. Aariak explained that ensuring Inuktut is used on federal ballots would be a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done, as evidenced by the fact that her office is still receiving concerns. Ms. Aariak and Ms. Kotierk both asserted that Inuit language should be prioritized by EC because people in Nunavut have high expectations, due to the language rights set out in the ILPA and the frequent use of Inuktut by other levels of government.

In response to a question about the barriers facing voters in Nunavut, Ms. Kotierk explained that the cultural context is unique. Firstly, she emphasized that access to federal voting is a fairly recent phenomenon, given that Inuit people were only recently moved from nomadic, land-based family units to static communities and were only given the vote in the 1960s. Secondly, she emphasized that cultural notions of leadership are based on experience and the idea that everyone has their own role to play, which means the self-promotion that comes with elections goes against the ways of many Inuit. Ms. Kotierk suggested that all these things might contribute to the lower voter turnout that has been seen.

When asked to provide more context about her desire to see policy / procedure unique to Nunavut, Ms. Aariak explained that her office has met with the CEO who has pointed to the fact that the CEA does not require the use of Inuit language on ballots. Ms. Aariak says she has argued in turn that the territory's ILPA should apply to EC and all of their signage / materials used in Nunavut.

Miscellaneous (experience in NTI elections, previous efforts of EC)

In response to a comment about the availability of signage and materials in Inuktut, Ms. Aariak explained that before the 2021 election, her office corresponded with EC about concerns that had been identified during previous elections. They received back a list of things that EC was planning to improve for 2021. However, in the end there were some gaps, for instance signs about mask usage and COVID-19 that were only in English and French. Ms. Aariak wondered why, if EC had some contracts to ensure translation into Inuktut, these were not used for all election materials. She mentioned that perhaps in future EC could liaise with the Inuit language authority (whose purpose is to standardize Inuktut terms) for support.

*This is an unofficial summary of the Committee proceedings – please refer to the official transcripts for clarification.