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Facilitating First Nation Voter Participation for the 42nd Federal General Election

4. Analysis

EC partnered with the AFN to fulfill two primary outcomes in the lead-up to, during and immediately following the 42nd GE. First, changes to ID and vouching in the CEA made outreach to First Nation electors about the ways they could vote a critical issue. EC contracted the AFN to provide technical expertise and logistical support to help provide First Nation electors with information about the ways in which they could register and vote during the 42nd GE. Second, to assist in developing a plan for information outreach, the AFN agreed to research barriers to voting faced by First Nation electors.

The previous sections of this report outline the methodological approach taken by the AFN and the critical findings that resulted from this work. Generally, this report identifies barriers to voting for First Nation electors and outlines the steps taken to help mitigate these barriers as part of a broad AFN-EC information outreach strategy.

While identifying and mitigating barriers to voting during the 42nd GE was a primary outcome, developing long-term solutions was not identified as a focus in the official SOW. Despite positive outcomes that flowed from AFN and EC efforts, barriers to voting continued to exist for First Nation electors. It was therefore critical that some thought be given to long-term strategies and solutions.

This final section of this report takes the experience of the 42nd GE and provides EC with a set of recommendations meant to mitigate or eliminate barriers to voting for First Nation electors in the future. The following recommendations are based on the AFN's experiences, observations and analysis during the 42nd GE. While many recommendations are based on quantitative analysis, others are based on the various experiences and insight of staff who were engaged in this work.

  1. EC should seek amendments to the CEA.
    1. Enable First Nation electors who live within a community/reserve encompassed by a single polling division to establish their place of residence without the need for identification that proves a home/civic address.

    2. Enable First Nation electors to use the VIC as a permanent form of identification proving their place of residence.

      First Nation electors, particularly those living on reserve, have a difficult time meeting the home address requirements outlined in the CEA. Homes on First Nation reserves often do not have a traditional home address and instead rely on a PO Box or a rural route number.

      Changes to the CEA in 2014 eliminated the VIC as a form of identification that could be used to prove place of residency, and this was a major contributing factor leading to the contract because it made meeting identification requirements even more difficult. Footnote 19

      The goal of the CEA identification requirements is to ensure that each elector is voting in the place he or she considers home. However, First Nation electors find it difficult to meet CEA requirements because some Western concepts limiting "home" to a physical residential dwelling do not neatly overlay with some First Nation concepts relating to space and place, which can more centrally emphasize a community or territory as home. This contrasts with the definition found in Canadian society at large, which tends to view home through the lens of private ownership and the single-family home or domicile.

      A simple solution, one that would be consistent with the spirit of CEA identification requirements, is for Canada to amend the CEA to allow First Nation electors who are members of a Band located in a single polling division, and who wish to vote on reserve, to meet the requirements by providing identification proving their Band membership. Proving Band membership on reserve is the same thing as proving home address for Canadian society more broadly because it directly connects the elector with the space he or she most strongly identifies as home. First Nation electors will more easily be able to meet identification requirements by proving Band membership than by meeting current home address requirements.

      Canada should also amend the CEA to once again allow First Nation electors to use the VIC as a piece of ID that meets the residency requirements. The VIC provides electors and EC with proof of registration and also ties electors to their polling location based on the residency information provided during registration. As long as an elector can provide identification with a name that matches what is on the VIC, that should be sufficient.

    3. Mandate EC to support get-out-the-vote campaigns and other activities that encourage First Nation voter participation.

      Many First Nation electors view Canadian federal electoral politics as reflective of a foreign system that has been imposed on them. Research suggests that some First Nation electors choose not to vote because they believe that their participation undermines their inherent sovereignty, while others choose not to vote as a form of political protest toward a colonial structure that they identify as oppressive. Footnote 20 Others find federal electoral politics to be confusing or overwhelming, while others feel that it lacks relevancy in their lives.

      First Nations were not given the right to vote in Canadian federal elections until 1960. In addition, First Nations have endured the theft of their lands and territories, genocidal policies and practices, a denial of their Indigenous rights and ongoing marginalization and poverty at the hands of the Canadian body politic; therefore, it may not be surprising that some First Nation electors are hesitant to participate in the Canadian political system.

      If Canada is serious about reconciliation, one part of this must include taking meaningful steps to encourage First Nation electors to identify with and participate in federal elections. Providing information is important and necessary, but the 42nd GE showed us that First Nation electors want to know why they should participate Footnote 21 as well as how to participate. EC should be mandated to play a role in encouraging First Nation electors to participate in Canadian federal elections.

    4. Enable any Canadian citizen aged 16 years or older to register with EC for the purpose of participating in an election when they reach the age of majority.

      Providing Canadian citizens with the ability to register with EC before they are 18 years old creates additional opportunities for early EC engagement with marginalized populations.

      It would empower EC to undertake outreach efforts in First Nation communities between election cycles and create additional opportunities for targeted revision (registration drives) and educational forums.

      In addition, it would create early momentum among interested electors and, in combination with changes to identification requirements, could help increase registration and participation rates among First Nation electors.

  2. EC should ensure that all First Nation communities have the opportunity to have at least one on-reserve polling station.

    For marginalized electoral populations, accessibility is critically important. This report has shown that the distance to a polling location can act as a barrier to voting. Footnote 22 Ensuring that First Nation electors have access to at least one polling location on their reserve will help reduce geographical barriers and increase access.

    In addition, ensuring that each First Nation community that wants a polling location on reserve has one will increase the flow of information between EC and First Nation communities and further the work of reconciliation and nation building.

    The responsibility for making sure that each First Nation community has access to a polling location should not rest with a First Nation's Band administration or leadership on reserve. They may choose not to accept a polling location on their reserve, but every First Nation should be given the opportunity to accept or reject a polling location on reserve well in advance of the federal election. Outreach should be conducted by EC through the appropriate RO, with support from within the community (e.g., the CRO-A).

  3. EC should take steps to create an ongoing administrative relationship between ROs and First Nation Band administrators.

    During the 42nd GE, some First Nation representatives expressed concerns about not being given adequate notice to properly participate in the election or potential pre-election activities (e.g., pre-registration). First Nation communities face complex social challenges, and providing First Nation Band administrators with support and information well in advance would contribute to mitigating existing barriers to voting. With increased notice and support, First Nation communities would be better able to ensure that their citizens are well informed, have the proper identification and are able to assist in the coordination and staffing of polling locations on reserve. It would also provide EC with more opportunities to provide targeted revision.

    The AFN call centre initiative noted many instances of First Nation Band administrators lacking sufficient information about identification requirements, changes to the CEA, the Letter of Confirmation of Residence and the availability of EC programs and services (such as the AFN call centre). Contact information for a local RO was the piece of additional information most requested by First Nation band administrators, suggesting a critical need for more information and support at the Band level.

    During federal election cycles, the RO becomes the critical point person for EC in each FED. The RO is responsible for deciding where polling locations will be placed, staffing programs such as the CRO-A and the AEYP, providing targeted revision for populations who are under-registered, etc. EC should consider expanding the role of the ROs to ensure that they build an administrative relationship with First Nation communities. This role would remain active between election cycles and focus on electoral education, targeted revision and other yet to be developed programs designed to address barriers to voting for First Nation electors.

  4. EC should ensure that that all First Nation communities have access to a CRO-A in their community during the election period.

    The EC CRO-A program is designed to provide targeted outreach to First Nation communities during Canadian federal elections, with the stated goals to:

    • Increase election awareness
    • Provide information on how, when and the ways to register and vote
    • Explain the importance of registering and voting
    • Make voting as accessible as possible for the target group

    The CRO-A, with the support of First Nation Band administrators and Band leadership, is well positioned to positively impact First Nation electors on reserve.

    Past experience and AFN research into barriers to voting for First Nation electors suggest that an information deficit exists on reserve concerning Canadian federal electoral politics. The AFN was hired to help close this information gap, and it did so substantively through the call centre initiative. Footnote 23 However, the AFN call centre targeted Band administrators, seeking to provide them with information that they could distribute at the community level. Given the range of challenges that some First Nation communities face more generally, it is unrealistic to ask First Nation Bands to provide their community members with information about EC programs and services or other relevant information related to voting in Canadian federal elections.

    EC can help address these capacity concerns by ensuring that each RO contacts each First Nation community in their FED and ensures that Band administrators are able to access a CRO-A if they require one.

  5. EC should hire local community members to carry out registration drives in their respective First Nation communities in advance of an election.

    First Nation electors are registered at much lower rates than the national average. Targeted revision should be a key EC strategy to help increase First Nation enumeration.

    As outlined in previous recommendations, EC must take a proactive approach to contacting First Nation administrators and providing them with the capacity to ensure that their community members have access to key programs, such as targeted revision. This should be done well in advance of any federal election. It should not be incumbent on the First Nation community to seek out these services because of the obvious capacity and information barriers at the Band level. Hiring local community members to support pre-registration (e.g., by going door to door) and sharing information is a necessary step in supporting First Nation engagement in federal elections.

  6. EC should partner with First Nation educational organizations to design culturally appropriate curricula outlining the federal electoral process.

    Canada's First Nation population is the fastest-growing population in the country, with a youth population that is disproportionately large (i.e., under 25). Reaching these youth in schools can be an important part of addressing the information gap relating to electoral participation. However, because most electoral information is generated for all Canadians, it does not necessarily resonate with First Nation youth – this was made abundantly clear in our focus groups.

    A focus on culturally appropriate curricula not only has a higher likelihood of resonating with First Nation youth, but it also signals to them that their participation is being sought. By seeing themselves reflected in this kind of curricula, meanings attached to participation in a federal election have the potential to be enhanced.

  7. EC should develop programs and services under the ERP that are accessible and culturally relevant to First Nation electors.

    This report has identified the form of, and access to, information as a barrier in voting for First Nation electors. Footnote 24 Specifically, First Nation electors require access to information that is both readily available and meaningful to them. Footnote 25

    First Nation electors have expressed concerns that the Canadian federal electoral process is a foreign system, one that does not reflect First Nation cultures or interests. Footnote 26 This is particularly understandable when it is recognized that First Nation citizens did not receive the right to vote in federal elections until 1960. Both a lack of culturally relevant information and the historical and political context contribute to feelings of alienation among First Nation electors and help explain persistent informational barriers to voting.

    To help address concerns about access and cultural relevance, EC should work with First Nation organizations and electors to develop programs and services to be distributed under the ERP that reflect their cultures and beliefs and that are presented in a manner that is meaningful and accessible.

  8. EC should ensure that First Nation electors need only prove their identity and residence once in order to participate in a respective election.

    Decreasing barriers to voting for First Nation electors is, in part, about making the process of voting easier. In the 42nd GE, EC focused on encouraging electors to register in advance of voting day. In effect, potential electors were being invited to engage in a two-step process: register in advance and vote on election day. In both cases are electors required to establish their identity and address. For those populations that are less inclined to vote, or for those that are confused by or intimidated by voting, asking them to do this twice has the potential to turn them away altogether.

    In an effort to decrease duplication, and to create an easier process, EC should ensure that First Nation electors are required to meet any identity and residency requirements only once. Where this is not possible, it will be imperative to ensure that any identity and residency requirements are easy to meet and that pre-registration is clearly defined as an option rather than a requirement. In any case, voting on election day should be described as a single action, whether or not an elector is pre-registered.

  9. EC should prioritize the gathering and processing of data relating to factors that could inform First Nation voter participation.

    As outlined at the outset of this report, the AFN is a national First Nation–representative organization. The AFN has provided technical support and expertise to support EC's efforts during the last four federal elections. The AFN has a great deal of experience working with First Nation organizations, communities and citizens. Our analysis and recommendations are based on both our findings and our experiences as a First Nation–representative organization.

    However, more data and further research is required to better understand the barriers that exist for First Nations in the context of federal electoral participation. For example, a comprehensive national survey of potential First Nation electors has never been attempted and would greatly contribute to our understanding of First Nation electoral participation. This is but one of many different examples of further work and research that could be explored. Additional efforts should be made to track voter turnout rates on reserve as well as the types of identification that are used to prove both name and home address.

    While EC has some data, many gaps remain with respect to understanding and addressing First Nation electoral participation rates in Canada. A concerted investment to help reduce these gaps could help to significantly improve the situation in future elections.

  10. Notwithstanding the above, EC should continue to respect the perspectives of First Nation citizens who choose not to participate in a federal election.

    In advocating for the removal of barriers that may affect First Nation participation in federal elections, the AFN is not seeking to override the interests of any First Nations or their citizens who choose not to participate in a federal election – we all reserve this right. More appropriately, the AFN has worked with EC to ensure that any First Nation citizen who chooses to participate in a federal election has the ability to exercise this choice. EC must continue to recognize this right on the part of First Nations and their citizens.

Footnote 19 EC introduced a pilot project for the 41st GE that responded to concerns on First Nation reserves about identification; it allowed First Nation electors to use their VIC as proof of address. Many First Nation Band administrators contacted as part of the 2015 AFN call centre initiative expressed frustration over the changes to the CEA and the impacts they would have on identification requirements.

Footnote 20 Harell, A., Panagos, D. and Matthews, J.S. (2013). "Explaining Aboriginal Turnout in Federal Elections: Evidence from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba." Aboriginal Policy Research Studies. Retrieved from:

Footnote 21 AFN Focus Group (Summary of Group Work – AGA Response to Question 3). According to many commentators in First Nation communities, social media and the ability to access information about why an elector should participate was critical.

Footnote 22 Several First Nation Band administrators noted during the 2015 AFN call centre initiative that they either did not have a polling location on reserve or were not aware that they could have one (AFN call centre). In one case, the Band administrator noted that the local RO was unwilling to provide the community with a polling location.

Footnote 23 AFN survey results show (Section 3.1.3 – Figure 3.15) an increase in post-election First Nation awareness of where and when to vote in the 42nd GE.

Footnote 24 In addition to AFN research on barriers to voting and anecdotal evidence, the AFN call centre found that roughly 60% of Band administrators contacted were interested in having access to additional information (Section 3.1.1 – Figure 3.5) and that many were interested specifically in how to contact their local RO (Section 3.1.1 – Figure 3.6). This suggests a lack of information and furthers the idea that First Nation electors require additional information and support if this gap is to be closed.

Footnote 25 AFN survey results found that roughly 15% of respondents chose "knowledge of federal politics" as a barrier to voting (Section 3.1.3 – figures 3.20 and 3.21).

Footnote 26 Harell, Panagos and Matthews.