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Elections Canada probes extent of mistakes on polling day in Indigenous communities

Were First Nations in Kenora, Ont., were the only ones denied the ability to vote?
A ballot and ballot box are seen on a bench in the law courts during a judicial recount of the results of the Vuntut Gwitchin riding’s results from the Yukon election, in Whitehorse, Monday, April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Kelly

Elections Canada has launched an investigation to see if errors cost Indigenous communities across Canada their right to vote.

It is checking to see whether First Nations in Kenora, Ont., were the only ones denied the ability to vote on polling day or if it was “a more general problem.”

There have been reports of incorrect information about polling stations on voter cards on reserves, and stations opening late in Indigenous areas.

Three fly-in First Nations communities in Kenora, including Pikangikum, Poplar Hill and Cat Lake, had no polling stations on election day.

Elections Canada is already looking into what went wrong in Kenora and has issued an apology “to any elector who was unable to vote as a result.”

In a statement, it said it is looking at voting services offered to Indigenous people across the country and plans to speak to communities to gauge if and how mistakes were made in order to prevent them happening again.

It says it needs to work to “build trust” with Indigenous voters.

“We are still working to get a complete picture of what happened. This involves consulting with the returning officer and Elections Canada staff as well as with community leaders and those who were affected,” said Matthew McKenna, a spokesman for Elections Canada.

“As part of our examination, we will look at the voting services offered to Indigenous communities across the country to find out if what happened in Kenora is a singular event or if it is indicative of a more general problem.”

Elections Canada, an independent body which runs the federal election, including in each riding, is also planning to look at ways “to improve our pre-election outreach to Indigenous electors.”

“We know that to deliver the services that people need, there has to be engagement. We need to build trust and work to maintain that trust. We will look at ways to improve how we engage with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities between elections, so that when election time comes, we can rely on those relationships to help ensure that everyone feels supported and well-served,” McKenna said.

Elections agents went to great lengths to ensure ballots reached voters in some remote Indigenous communities on time, including transporting them by dog sled in Nunavut.

There was a huge increase in mail-in ballots in this year’s election, many in remote communities. Some elections agents flew them to First Nations areas by helicopter.

The early election called by Trudeau did not give election officials as long as usual to prepare, and COVID-19 meant that many locations used as polling stations in the past were unavailable.

The NDP has requested an official inquiry by elections commissioner Yves Côté into what it called “numerous and systemic failures of election officials.” The party’s national director Anne McGrath complained in her letter that some polling stations opened late “or not at all,” disenfranchising voters, many of whom were in Indigenous communities.

The complaint said that in Kenora, Indigenous voters were “significantly disenfranchised.”

—Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

RELATED: NDP says errors meant voters — including First Nations — were disenfranchised