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Aboriginal Electoral Participation in Canada

Executive Summary

Voter turnout among Aboriginal Canadians is lower than among non-Aboriginal Canadians. Using surveys conducted with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal electors following the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 Canadian federal elections, this report explores the reasons for this gap in turnout.

We examine the existing literature on voter turnout to identify the determinants of electoral participation generally, as well as specifically among Aboriginal people. Next, we empirically examine the effect of these determinants on voter turnout among Aboriginals, both on and off First Nations reserves, and among non-Aboriginals. We find that these groups exhibit common patterns in regard to the determinants of turnout.

Our analyses show that Aboriginal turnout increases among those with more education and more income. This is likewise true for non-Aboriginals. We also find that Aboriginal turnout increases with age, as it does for non-Aboriginals. Finally, we find that Aboriginals, like non-Aboriginals, are more likely to vote when they have more political resources (i.e.  political knowledge and information) and a greater sense of civic duty. These are the same factors that drive electoral participation among non-Aboriginals. Taken together, this suggests that Aboriginals vote or do not vote for the same reasons as non-Aboriginals.

Our report also examines the determinants of voter registration among Aboriginal electors. The evidence suggests that the same factors underlie rates of registration among both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. As we found that political resources and sense of civic duty are the most influential factors in the decision to participate in elections, we empirically examine the determinants of these two factors. Once again, socio-demographic variables are centrally important.

The key implication of these findings is that the gap in turnout between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal electors can be completely accounted for by residence on or off a reserve, age, education, income, political resources and civic duty. Were it not for the lower rate of registration, fewer political resources, weaker sense of civic duty, younger average age and poorer socio-economic footing of Aboriginals, they could be expected to vote in federal elections at the same rate as non-Aboriginals. Our findings suggest that turnout among Aboriginals would increase by 20 percentage points if their profile on these determinants matched that of non-Aboriginals, completely closing the gap between them.

The report concludes with five policy recommendations for increasing Aboriginal voter turnout. Aboriginals living on reserves should be the focus of special effort. Likewise, young Aboriginals should be targeted. Programs that promote political resources and civic duty should be developed and tested. Registration efforts should be expanded. Finally, we recommend that Elections Canada study those Aboriginal communities with higher and lower than average rates of participation.