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April 5, 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

Topic

Inclusion of Indigenous Languages on Federal Election Ballots

Witnesses
  • Stephen Dunbar, Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Northwest Territories (E-NWT)
  • Dustin Fredlund, Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Nunavut (E-NU)
  • Samantha Mack, Language Assistance Compliance Manager, Alaska Division of Elections (ADE)

Opening Statements

Stephen Dunbar

  • The NWT has 11 official languages, 9 of which are Indigenous, ranging from 2002200 speakers.
  • Recent amendments to territorial legislation give E-NWT the ability to use syllabics on ballots.
  • The candidate nomination form allows for "commonly known" names without ID; as a result, the ballot reflects the name as it is provided by candidates, regardless of language / orthography.
  • There are no political parties in the NWT, so ballots only contain photos of the candidates and their names, in whatever language / orthography it was provided.
  • There is no longer a one-stop translation bureau to produce materials in different languages; so having to deal with multiple contractors with varying availability, costs and timing can be an issue.
  • E-NWT is currently looking at producing more voter information in Indigenous languages (including "vote here" signs, and information about what is needed to vote (i.e.: ID requirements)).
  • There have been technical challenges at times with computers that do not register diacritics.
  • E-NWT will work closely with Indigenous governments to ensure respect of languages and culture.

Dustin Fredlund

  • In territorial elections, all information put out by E-NU includes four languages: Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun (these are the two major dialects of Inuktut), English, and French.
  • Translations of Inuit languages do not reflect all dialects, but all speakers usually get the gist.
  • Ballots include candidates' names in Inuit languages using both the Latin alphabet and syllabics.
  • E-NU relies on candidates to submit their names; fortunately, the E-NU office has in-house capacity to ensure that names written in syllabics accurately show the candidate's choice and to decipher write-in ballots to ensure voters' choices in any local language are accurately recorded.

Samantha Mack

  • Alaska is currently implementing ranked-choice voting and recently launched an educational campaign on this subject in 9 Indigenous languages as well as English, Spanish, and Tagalog.
  • Alaska uses a panel model for all Indigenous translation, wherein multiple speakers of a language translate together to ensure accuracy and respect dialects. This is considered a best practice.
  • As in the American context, the inclusion of Indigenous language on ballots in Canada would be a very important first step towards greater inclusion of Indigenous electors.

Questions by Subject

Current use of Indigenous languages in NWT / Nunavut

In response to a question asking what materials are provided in the NWT's 11 official languages, Mr. Dunbar responded that the materials they plan to produce for the next GE include: signs that say 'vote here' / 'polling place' and materials that explain what you need to be able to vote, including acceptable ID. Mr. Dunbar noted that in smaller communities, people are less likely to have official photo ID, so any instructions need to be clear about what alternatives forms of identification exist.

When asked to expand on issues of translation availability and timelines, Mr. Dunbar explained that he doesn't yet have an answer to this problem but is meeting soon with the NWT Languages Commissioner to seek advice, especially on the question of how to approach dialects.

When asked why the territories of Nunavut and NWT are more advanced in the provision of voting services in Indigenous languages (compared to EC), Mr. Fredlund responded that he can't really speak to what EC's challenges are, because in Nunavut, they are able to provide all election materials in all four languages by default. He added that a strength of his office is that most of the staff speaks Inuktut, although the dialects do present some challenges. Mr. Dunbar's response was that E-NWT has been encouraged to do more on Indigenous languages, so they are continuing to improve their offerings.

In response to a clarifying question about the ballots used in Nunavut, Mr. Fredlund explained that most communities use Inuktut syllabics, but some use Roman orthography, so both are provided on ballots. He also mentioned that in the previous election, E-NU had 100% compliance for candidates submitting their names in syllabics, even for those who only spoke English.

Feedback About Elections Canada

In response to a question about language-related feedback their offices have received, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Fredlund both mentioned that their offices sometimes receive language complaints during federal elections, often because electors do not know that E-NWT/ E-NU are separate from EC. Mr. Fredlund also explained that in 2019, when federal and municipal elections took place at the same time, E-NU had all signage in all four languages, but EC did not, and his office received feedback from confused electors thinking that E-NU was responsible for signage.

With respect to best practices they would offer to EC, Mr. Dunbar mentioned that E-NWT was one of the first jurisdictions to include candidate photos on ballots, which has helped to bridge gaps in language and literacy. He also mentioned that returning officers are instructed to arrange for interpreters to be made available where needed. However, Mr. Dunbar noted that it is not always possible to confirm interpreters for each language. In responding to a related question, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Fredlund noted that the provision of interpretation at the polls is not legislatively required in either territory, but ROs usually do their best to hire poll workers/ interpreters who speak the local languages.

In response to a question about what the witnesses would recommend EC do differently with respect to Indigenous languages, Mr. Fredlund responded that this is something that CEOs will be discussing this summer in Iqaluit. He also mentioned that he has met with and worked with the CEO of EC previously. Mr. Dunbar added that it is very important to be sure that names be included on the ballot as they are provided by the candidate, because anglicizing names often changes the meaning. Ms. Mack reaffirmed that the choice of alphabet, appearance of the ballot, and use of syllabics were all important questions.

When asked about the potential sharing of resources with EC when territorial and federal elections coincided, Mr. Fredlund said that E-NU would never say no to sharing information about Inuktut or helping, but that we need to keep in mind that laws are different, sharing information is not necessarily just a reprint, and both offices also extremely busy when elections are coinciding.

Funding in Support of Indigenous Languages

In response to a question about funding for the provision of Indigenous languages, Mr. Dunbar explained that while E-NWT does not have speakers of all 11 languages in house, they are adequately resourced to provide all these languages. However, they cannot always guarantee a quick turnaround because they rely on contract translators. Mr. Fredlund, meanwhile, said that the Nunavut legislative assembly has always been able to provide the required funding for language translation.

Differing Dialects

When asked about the challenge of varying dialects within languages, Mr. Fredlund replied that his office's translations, which are completed in Rankin Inlet, don't always match exactly with local dialects, but are similar enough that different written dialects don't usually have to be provided for each of the 25 communities. He added that during election periods, his office also relies on connections in the Western arctic for dialectical support. Mr. Dunbar confirmed that dialects were certainly something his office will be working to address with local governments: some communities are trying to centralize their languages, and make uniform translations, while other communities may want to preserve unique dialects. Mr. Dunbar also used the example that in some dialects of one language, the roman letter 'X' translates literally to "vote," which could impact the design of 'vote here' signs. Ms. Mack offered that the use of translation panels has helped to improve dialectical challenges by allowing for a balance between specificity and understanding across a wide geographic area.

Language Legislation in the US (Alaska)

Ms. Mack was asked several questions about language rules and legislation in her jurisdiction of Alaska, US. In response to a question about why ballots are provided by the ADE in Tagalog (a Filipino language), Ms. Mack explained that there is a rule (in federal legislation) that if 5% of the voting population speaks a language and speaks English less than "very well," voting materials should be produced in that language. She also clarified that in the case of Indigenous languages, dialects within a language are considered one group under this 5% rule, but once that threshold is met, ADE may still decide to translate into several distinct dialects using their panel translation model.

Miscellaneous (Length of Election Period, Voter Turnout)

In response to a question about the length of the election periods in their respective jurisdictions, Mr. Dunbar replied that the election period in the NWT is 29 days by law (with candidates given until day 25 to submit their names), and Mr. Fredlund replied that in Nunavut it is 35 days by law (with candidates given until day 30 to submit their names). In a later question on this topic, a Member noted that perhaps EC should be given a longer period between close of nominations and election day.

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

Meeting Information

Topic

Inclusion of Indigenous Languages on Federal Election Ballots

Witnesses
  • Lori Idlout, M.P., Nunavut

Opening Statements

  • Election services in Indigenous languages are not sufficient by themselves. There are many unilingual Indigenous speakers, especially elders, and Elections Canada (EC) employees greet electors at a polling station in English and French. Some electors can only be assisted by the kindness of someone else.
  • In territorial or local elections, Nunavut residents are used to, and have the right to, vote in their language.
  • The EC pilot project in 2021 was not the norm; with the exception of the pilot, ballots in Nunavut are in English or French and candidates have to explain to electors the physical place of their name on the ballot.
  • For an Indigenous elector, it is not always worth filing a complaint the complainant can't file in English or French, and the person receiving the complaint may not understand if it is written in an Indigenous language.
  • Ms. Idlout gave five recommendations for EC and the government: (1) learn from Elections Nunavut who has extensive experience in running elections in four languages, (2) hire full time Indigenous interpreters/translators to build capacity within EC, (3) streamline EC's complaints process for unilingual speaking Indigenous people to voice their concerns, (4) conduct further study on Indigenous governance within Canada's democracy, and (5) ensure that the federal government respects Indigenous culture in order to build the trust that is necessary for reconciliation.

Questions by Subject

Recruitment / Election Workers

When asked about the difference in voter turnout during territorial/local and federal elections and what can be done to improve voter turnout, Ms. Idlout explained that EC staff should be "trauma informed" so that they do not continue to portray colonial values when dealing with electors. She added that higher voter turnout during territorial/local elections can be explained by the elector's trust in the electoral process.

When asked about what EC can do to improve its recruitment strategy and advance reconciliation, Ms. Idlout said there should be more linguists and cultural interpreters on EC's staff, and EC should meet with Indigenous organizations, like the Assembly of First Nations, that work with their people and advocate for their rights.

Threshold

On a question about what would be an acceptable threshold for the inclusion of Indigenous languages on the ballot, Ms. Idlout said that the extent of language loss in Indigenous communities should be the threshold and indicated that EC can play a role in promoting and protecting the language through the translation of the ballot and election material. She added that the electoral process allows for the recognition of Indigenous people's right to vote and is therefore part of the reconciliation.

When asked if she would consider the committee's study a success if Inuit languages were included on ballots in Nunavut, or if ballots across the country should include Indigenous languages, Ms. Idlout said that when it comes to Indigenous languages, more can always be done and mentioned that she would like for all Indigenous languages to be incorporated on the ballot, when necessary.

Ms. Idlout explained that while there is no need to have 16 languages on the federal election ballots everywhere in Canada, it is necessary to have ballots available in Indigenous languages where Indigenous people live.

Miscellaneous/other issues (legislation)

When asked about her plans to introduce legislation, or if the NDP-Liberal agreement includes legislation to add Indigenous languages on the ballot, Ms. Idlout responded that she is studying Bill C-309, but has not had any conversations with the Liberal government on the topic.

Ms. Idlout brought up that many Indigenous people do not know what EC can do and parliamentarians should do a better job in transmitting that information. She also said that legislation, policies and programs should be more reflective of the culture of First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

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