Statements and Speeches
Remarks of the Chief Electoral Officer before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs Indigenous Languages on Ballots
March 29, 2022
Thank you, Madam Chair, for the opportunity to speak with the Committee.
Improving services in Indigenous languages is an important aspect of offering a more inclusive electoral process and reducing the barriers for Indigenous electors. More fundamentally, I believe that it is part of reconciliation.
Although we currently offer information products in several Indigenous languages, we are working to improve our processes and service offering. This includes the consideration of Indigenous languages on the ballot and on a range of information products that can be made available at the polls.
Current federal ballot design and production
Before considering changes to the federal ballot, it is important to understand the existing legal and operational ballot production regime.
The design and content of the ballot is set out in some detail in the Canada Elections Act, including a schedule that contains a visual image. These requirements relate not only to language, such as the use of the Latin alphabet and the alphabetical ordering of names, but also physical characteristics such as a counterfoil and a stub, with lines of perforations separating them. These special characteristics mean that current ballots can only be printed by a limited number of suppliers, and printed and distributed within a tight timeline.
While the name of the candidate may be in any language using the Latin alphabet, candidates must provide proof of identification when they are nominated; this name is then used on the ballot.
For political parties, the party name appears on the ballot in the language the party chooses. There is no requirement for a party to have a bilingual name; currently, three federal parties have a name only in French, and one party only uses an English name. They are not translated.
Under the Act, ballots must be printed in the narrow window that exists between the close of candidate nominations, 21 days before election day, and the first day of advance polls, 10 days before election day. In large and remote ridings, getting the ballots printed and distributed across the riding in time for advance polls is already a significant challenge.
Alternate ballot options and policy considerations
We see four different options for the use of Indigenous languages for federal ballots. Each option raises specific policy, operational and electoral integrity concerns that need to be considered. All but one require legislative changes. For ease of reference, I have supplied a "placemat" that reviews the four options and the associated questions they raise for Parliament.
The multilingual ballot
One option would be to offer a multilingual ballot, including one (or more) Indigenous languages, in designated electoral districts.
This raises first an important question about what threshold of Indigenous population would be required in a riding before including an Indigenous language and whether a cap on the number of languages on a ballot is necessary.
Some have suggested ballots should be made available to Indigenous voters in their own language in electoral districts where they represent 1% of the population; in practice, if measured by the mother tongue of Indigenous Canadians, this would mean administering ballots in 17 languages in 27 electoral districts across the country, with up to 5 Indigenous languages in some districts.
The use of printed ballots with more than two languages raises important questions of accessibility and design. Putting the names of parties and candidates in multiple languages on a ballot risks making a crowded, busy text that may be difficult for some voters to comprehend, especially those with low literacy or an intellectual disability, as well as those with a visual impairment. Testing of the ballot design with user communities would be critical prior to legislative enactment.
A ballot in a language other than English and French requires the transliteration of candidate names and the translation of party names. Elections Canada is not an expert in Indigenous languages. We offer information products in 16 Indigenous languages, and we are aware that, for some of these languages, experts are very few in number and that translation timelines are considerable. This has a significant impact on production timelines and the overall electoral calendar, which would need to be extended.
Multilingual jurisdictions typically resort to other processes to offer ballots in the elector's preferred language such as the use of electronic voting machines that allow electors to choose the language of their ballot. Logos or symbols can also be used instead of names to represent parties on ballots.
A separate Indigenous language ballot
Another option would be to amend the Act to allow for a separate, Indigenous language ballot that could be used by Indigenous voters.
This option reduces ballot complexity concerns but presents additional challenges with regard to production timelines and distribution.
In addition, assuming that the two ballot options would be available throughout the district, this risks compromising the secrecy of the vote in places where members of one linguistic community are few in number. Having a distinct ballot used by only certain voters within a polling division could identify the voting choices of these voters.
I do not recommend separate ballots.
The Nunavut model: A flexible ballot
A variation on the multilingual ballot would be to pursue an approach similar that used in territorial elections in Nunavut, where candidates who wish to do so can provide their names to appear on the ballot in the Inuit language.
An amendment to the Act could permit candidates to provide an Indigenous language name for use on the ballot alongside their name in English and French. Federal parties could also be entitled to provide Indigenous versions of their name to be used on ballots in certain ridings, where they wish. This would be consistent with the current approach where parties can but are not required to have their name in both French and English.
Although this option would remove the need for independent translation or transliteration of ballot information, it raises other questions or considerations. Candidates must currently provide documentary evidence of their name. Would this requirement be kept for Indigenous names, as well as for French and English names? If not, would Elections Canada have to validate the transliteration? In addition, who would determine which version of a party name to use in which riding?
Finally, it is important to note that under this model Indigenous electors would not necessarily be offered a ballot with all candidate or party names in their language.
Use of ballot facsimiles in Indigenous languages
The final option, which I recommend, does not require legislative change. Elections Canada would provide a facsimile of the ballot in an Indigenous language for voters to use behind the voting screen.
For the first time, during the 2021 general election, Elections Canada experimented with the use of a ballot facsimile, with the preparation of posters reproducing the ballot in Inuktitut and displayed near the voting booths in all the polling stations in Nunavut. Despite some production challenges, we were able to produce the facsimile just in time for use at advance polls.
In consultation with Indigenous communities, I would like to expand testing of this approach in other districts, using other languages. I also plan to expand the deployment of information products in Indigenous languages at the polls to reduce barriers and ensure that the voting experience of Indigenous Canadians is more reflective of their identity.
This will allow us to become more familiar and agile at using Indigenous languages in the voting process outside of Nunavut, which to date is the only Canadian jurisdiction with experience in this area. We will be able to work with candidates and parties to test facsimiles, including transliterations of candidate names and, where appropriate, translations of party names. We can also test out the timelines for the printing and production processes.
I understand the significance of this issue for Indigenous Canadians and I am committed to continue increasing the use of Indigenous languages in the electoral process. But I also urge the Committee to carefully consider the complexities around the use of multilingual ballots.
I do not recommend legislative changes at this stage but instead to pursue and expand the use of facsimile ballots in other Indigenous languages. The experience gained will help Elections Canada and this Committee take further and better informed steps in this important area in the future.
Thank you for inviting me today. I welcome your questions.