Native voter woes

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Quebec politics never lacks for drama. And though most observers expected the Liberals to win April 7, it was certainly an interesting election night in Quebec. Few would have predicted how badly the ruling Parti Québécois would lose, or that Premier Pauline Marois would lose her own seat and resign as party leader that night.

Closer to home, neither did we expect the apparent snub served up to Cree voters by Elections Quebec, which seemed to go out of its way to deny critical voting information to voters in Eeyou Istchee.

The only print media serving Eeyou Istchee did not initially receive any advertising telling Crees how and where to vote, despite the fact that Cree voters represent over 34% of the electorate in the Ungava riding. It wasn’t until we said that we were going to issue a press release that Elections Quebec purchased a half-page ad. The Cree Radio Network serving all of the same communities received no ads at all.

Facebook conversations revealed the damage of this official neglect as many Crees used the forum to complain they didn’t know where to vote while others weren’t even on the electoral list. One Cree in Montreal said he would have liked to know about advance polls, voting by proxy or mail but didn’t have the information.

Interest in this election among Crees was high, certainly because of the Charter of Values and threat of a referendum on sovereignty. Despite the negligeance on the part of Elections Quebec, Cree turnout almost doubled this election to 2,239 who cast ballots – compared to 1,195 in the 2012 election. Still, that’s less than a quarter of the roughly 9,000 Cree who are eligible to vote.

Imagine, however, how many Crees would have voted had Elections Quebec adequately informed them how to participate in this election. Many Cree residents of the Ungava riding needed the information as soon as the election was called. There is a large part of the population that carries on the traditional pursuits of trapping, hunting and gathering away from sources of information. Many others work away from their communities, including mine workers who are on-site for 10 days or more before they get rest periods to return home. Still others are students down south who wanted to cast their vote but didn’t know how.

Given that Elections Quebec partnered with the Quebec Community Groups Network to encourage English-speaking youth to vote it seems to be different for encouraging the Cree vote. I hope this critical oversight was not intentional.

This hope doesn’t exist on the federal level, where the Conservative government is intentially engaging in voter suppression with its so-called Fair Elections Act. Bill C-33 will disenfranchise many communities, but especially Aboriginal voters.

The Assembly of First Nations identifies two areas of concern. One is that voter identification cards would no longer be proof of residency. Some First Nations communities have situations in which several families numbering 20 or more people live in a single house. It would be impossible for most of them to have a document with their address on it. A single home only gets so many bills.

The second problem concerns people lacking approved identification; they would no longer be able to have an identified voter vouch for them. Many First Nations people across Canada do not have more than a status card. People living on $320 a month often don’t have bank accounts, driver’s licenses and other identity documents that most Canadians take for granted.

“This will only further put up barriers for Aboriginal people,” observed Teresa Edwards, a Mi’kmaq who serves as legal counsel for the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “It can’t help but make someone wonder, is that the intent? Is this really democracy or is the intent to actually limit Aboriginal voting in the next election?”

That’s a question we should ask of both the Quebec and Canadian governments.

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