First Nations, Activists address stricter voting rules

By Betty Ann Adam -The Starphoenix (photo credit Gord Waldner)

Grassroots organizers and First Nations leaders are seeking ways to cope with stricter voter identification rules that many fear will reduce the turnout of aboriginal voters in the next federal election.

Two women are leading a call for volunteers to help spread information and encourage aboriginal people to vote, and First Nations leaders across the province are working on letters for band members to meet Election Canada's new, more stringent requirements. The flurry of activity in advance of this year's federal election was stirred up by the new requirement that each voter prove his or her physical address on paper. The long accepted practice of having a second person vouch for a voter's address will no longer suffice. Such vouching was a common necessity at many reserves, which lack regular street addresses.

Nor will Elections Canada accept Indian status cards alone.

Instead, Elections Canada requires each person lacking identification that includes an address to have a different registered voter swear an oath as to the technical land description of their home or a letter from the First Nation confirming the location, along with a piece of identification with the voter's name.

First Nations have records of the heads of households in band houses, but confirming other members of voting age who live at each house could create a daunting administrative job.

One of the largest First Nations in Saskatchewan, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, has about 10,000 members spread out over seven farflung reserves.

Smaller First Nations, such as Fond du Lac, which has fewer than 1,200 residents, will be easier to serve, said its administrator, Darryl McDonald. The membership clerk there already has a form letter to fill out and sign for voters to take next door to the polling station.

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas said plans are afoot to create and share a letter template for bands.

He thinks the letter requirement is a complicated version of vouching.

"As a chief of a community, I can write you a letter ... but as a chief of that community, I can't go to that polling (station) and say you're allowed to vote," Thomas said.

AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde said chiefs should have the ability to vouch for all their fellow members.

"A chief knows all of his First Nations members, so it should really be expanded," he said.

University of Saskatchewan political scientist Joe Garcea said the new rules discount anomalies among voters and are "much more concerned about making sure those who vote meet the standard than they are about maximizing access.

"Who's going to take responsibility for making sure all efforts are made that a maximum amount of people can meet the standard? That's downloading the responsibility, taking it off the shoulders from Elections Canada officials. There's no doubt this will make it more difficult to meet the requirements. It will discourage those without ID," he said.

Urban voters, who could also be hindered by the stricter rules, are one target of grassroots organizers Glenda Abbot and Melody Wood, who are using Twitter and the Facebook group Aboriginal Vote 2015 to mobilize volunteers to engage aboriginal voters.

"We have acknowledged No. 1 that we have (identification) issues - ID barriers, so that's one of the key things we want to address," Abbott said. "We want to get a whole lot of minds together and think, 'How can we overcome this?' Because that's what it's going to take - more minds, more ideas."

For example, residents of towns and cities can use utility and other bills with their street addresses on them, along with one piece of ID.

Abbot and Wood also urge aboriginal people to vote for candidates or parties who commit to representing aboriginal concerns in Parliament.

They would like to see aboriginal voters in the same ridings agree on a candidate in order to increase the power of their votes.

Chief Thomas is equally passionate about First Nations people exercising their right to vote. He reminds them that many aboriginal people fought in wars to guarantee their families would have the freedom to participate in democracy.

"Everyone should practice that responsibility. They should pay tribute to those who gave up their lives for you to have that right." badam@thestarphoenix.com