By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Harper government’s parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs dismissed concerns tabled before a House of Commons committee Thursday that proposed changes to the law governing federal elections would reduce voting participation by First Nation people.
Aboriginal Affairs parliamentary secretary Mark Strahl said he believed the Fair Elections Act, Bill C-23, would actually help more First Nation people vote.
“(The proposed bill) is providing opportunities for Canadians to vote,” said Strahl, who initially tried to avoid questions on the issue from APTN National News. “I think that all Canadians are concerned about their elections and the Act clearly takes into account the concerns of all Canadians.”
The House of Commons’ Procedure and House Affairs committee heard testimony from two First Nations organizations and a band from Saskatchewan. All three told the committee the Harper government’s proposed election changes would keep more First Nation people from casting a ballot.
First Nation voting participation rates range from 35 per cent to 75 per cent across the country.
“How can the Canadian government continue to monitor the voting procedures and processes in other countries when they are excluding the disadvantaged voters in Canadian federal elections?” said Gladys Christiansen, director of human resources for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. “If Bill C-23 is not amended the number of First Nations people that will be able to vote in the next and future federal elections will be significantly reduced and will be eliminated for many.”
The proposed bill would eliminate the use of vouching which allowed people without proper identification to vote if someone with proper ID vouched for them. It would also disallow the use of Elections Canada’s voter information cards as proof of address.
Christiansen said those changes would directly impact First Nations people on reserve who don’t possess the required identification to vote. Someone with only an Indian status card would not be able to vote because the card does not include an address. The issue of addresses is also tricky because many reserves used PO Boxes and the documents listed among the 39 forms of authorized ID are difficult to find in many communities, she said.
Many people living on reserve do not have things like bank or credit card statements, vehicle ownership records, residential lease or insurance policy documents. With the type of overcrowding faced by many communities, with sometimes up to a dozen people living in one house, utility bills would also be useless because they would name only one person.
Christiansen took aim at Pierre Poilievre who is the minister of state for democratic reform and point person for the government on the bill.
“Unlike the Democratic Reform Minister, Pierre Poilievre, who has numerous pieces of identification in his wallet, most First Nations people do not have any of those pieces of authorized identification and documents, much less one that contains an address,” she said.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski said the proposed bill would allow the use of a vouching letter from band politicians or officials to confirm place of residence.
Christiansen said such an option was too onerous for a band like Lac La Ronge which has 3,778 on-reserve members eligible to vote.
“We have nothing better to do than to sit around and write letters to prove who we are? Why do we have to do that? We have been doing it long enough,” said Christiansen, in a separate interview.
She said status cards should be enough for a First Nation person to vote.
Assembly of First Nations CEO Peter Dinsdale raised a different concern centred on the proposed bill’s shackling of the Chief Electoral Officer. Under the bill, the Chief Electoral Officer would be restricted to communicating only about how and where to vote.
Dinsdale said this would hurt work between First Nation organizations and Elections Canada on increasing First Nation voting participation.
“The AFN has worked productively with Elections Canada in a non-partisan capacity over the past three federal elections to help ensure that First Nation voters have information on how to participate in federal elections,” said Dinsdale. “These changes, it would seem, would eliminate our efforts to reach out to band offices to provide information for an upcoming election.”
Conservative MP Scott Reid, who is a member of the Procedure and House Affairs committee, said the proposed bill would not prevent the AFN from partnering with Elections Canada on outreach projects.
Conservative MP Blake Richards, also a committee member, said he didn’t think ID issues kept First Nation people from voting.
“I don’t think that anything that is being eliminated here in this bill would create a greater barrier. What this bill does is provide a mandate that Elections Canada must do a better job of focusing on making sure people are aware of the logistics that are required in order to vote,” said Richards.
NDP MP David Christopherson, who is a member of the committee, said First Nation concerns over the bill should have been enough to stop it.
“When you hear representatives of the First Nations people and reminding us of the existing challenges that exist and to add to that that new challenges are being created…given the critical importance of that relationship and the incredibility poor job this government is doing…this alone should have been enough for a government that really cared about First Nation people to say, wait a minute,” he said.
Teresa Edwards, in-house legal counsel for the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said it appears that the Conservatives are trying to keep First Nation people from voting.
“That is the fear that anyone could have when you look at the situation. It would create a barrier for First Nation people in the next election,” she said. “Are they trying to limit the amount of people who are eligible to come out and vote?”
Poilievre was also asked by the NDP about First Nations concerns over his bill during question period Thursday. His answer ignored the question.