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Aboriginal Electoral Participation in Canada


The voter turnout of Aboriginal Canadians lags that of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Electoral participation stands at the forefront of other participatory activities. Indeed, many view it as the principal act of citizenship in a democratic society. That participation trails markedly among an entire subset of the Canadian population is a matter of great concern.

In this report, we have strived to identify what explains the variation in Aboriginal turnout and what might remedy this disparity. We have concluded that the determinants of Aboriginal turnout do not markedly differ from those of turnout among non-Aboriginals. The decision to participate turns on a sense of civic duty and a minimum level of political resources, it is made easier for those who are registered, and it is more likely to occur among those who have the educational and material resources that make navigating the political world easier.

We wish to highlight that these results sometimes contrast with previous accounts of the determinants of electoral participation among Aboriginals. First, previous individual-level accounts did not include measures of either political resources or sense of civic duty. As our results show, these are central to the decision to vote among Aboriginals (as they are for non-Aboriginals). Second, our results highlight the negative effect on participation of living on a reserve. Previous studies have failed to uncover this effect. Our finding is likely a result of the improved and expanded sample on which our study is based. Third, while our bivariate results suggest that certain beliefs about the nature of Canada's democratic system may be related to the decision to vote, they generally do not exercise effects independent of political resources and civic duty.

More importantly, our account casts a bright light on the sources of lower turnout among Aboriginal Canadians. The gap in turnout between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal electors can be completely accounted for by residence on or off a First Nations 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 would vote to the same extent as non-Aboriginals.

Based on these findings, we have advanced a number of policy recommendations, notably that Elections Canada should focus efforts on Aboriginals living on a reserve and younger Aboriginals; that efforts should be made to develop and rigorously evaluate programs aimed at increasing political interest, knowledge and civic duty; and that registration should be made easier. None of these tasks are simple, and all require material resources and focused effort. The upside of success, however, cannot be overemphasized. Aboriginal communities are, on average, much younger than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Accordingly, programs that successfully increase electoral participation among young Aboriginals will equip one of Canada's fastest growing populations for much greater political influence in the future. This is a most laudable objective.