Electoral Insight – Persons with Disabilities and Elections
Roundtable on Aboriginal Youth and the Federal Electoral Process
On January 17, 2004, Elections Canada organized, in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education (CIRCLE), a roundtable on Aboriginal youth and the federal electoral process at Carleton University in Ottawa. The majority of the 27 participants were Aboriginal youth, most of whom represented one of the national Aboriginal associations.
The roundtable was opened with a prayer by Gordon Williams, an elder from the Peguis First Nation.
John Medicine Horse Kelly, co-director of CIRCLE and co-chair of the roundtable, said this initiative indicated that the question of Aboriginal electoral participation was getting the attention it deserves. Val Courchene, founder of the Dreamcatcher Aboriginal youth conferences and co-chair of the roundtable, said she was honoured to be part of this event.
The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, delivered informal opening remarks. He mentioned that the available research indicates that, even though in his view they have a good deal at stake, Aboriginal people participate in federal elections at lower rates than the population as a whole. In this context, he noted that turnout rates in the referendums sponsored by the Cree and Inuit in northern Quebec prior to the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty were quite high. He added that, if young Aboriginal people participate in significant numbers, elected officials would listen. Mr. Kingsley mentioned that Elections Canada had developed a number of programs to improve the accessibility of the electoral process for Aboriginal people. Certain improvements would be made by the next federal general election. However, a longer term effort was required, in collaboration with Aboriginal communities, particularly concerning education about the electoral process.
Presentations on Aboriginal People and Electoral Participation
Kiera Ladner, of the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, explored the question of why a significant number of Aboriginal people do not vote in federal elections. Dr. Ladner said that she has not voted in the past because of her understanding of treaties and her belief that she belongs to a nation that is "within the purview of Canada by default." In her view, for some Aboriginal youth, voting in federal elections would be a question of participating within an "alien nation." She added, however, that a lot of Aboriginal people do not share this perspective. Dr. Ladner did not offer a specific response to these differing stances, but suggested that a process of dialogue was necessary before Aboriginal participation would be broadened.
The next presentation was given by Jaime Koebel, former president of the Aboriginal Youth Council of the National Association of Friendship Centres and a Master's student at Carleton University. Ms. Koebel said that, given historical events such as denying certain First Nations people the right to vote in federal elections until 1960, it is not surprising that some Aboriginal young people do not vote. However, this does not mean that they are not interested in other political activities. She said that she votes on any occasion when she thinks she can make a difference. Ms. Koebel noted that Aboriginal youth are a rapidly growing community and therefore have considerable power. She mentioned a number of changes that had taken place within the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) since the mid-1980s, adding that youth now count for one third of the votes for the NAFC assembly. To close her presentation, Ms. Koebel stated, "your ideas can transpire into valuable changes."
Following the initial sessions, participants divided into two discussion groups and addressed the following questions:
- Barriers to Aboriginal youth voting: What factors discourage Aboriginal youth from voting in federal elections? What can Elections Canada and Aboriginal communities do to lower these barriers?
- Why Aboriginal youth should vote: What can Elections Canada and Aboriginal communities do to increase Aboriginal young people's understanding of and interest in the federal electoral process?
Following the group sessions, participants reassembled to hear reports on each group's observations and suggestions. The points presented below, which are taken from the reports from both groups, have been structured according to a number of themes.
The Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, and participants at the roundtable on Aboriginal youth and the federal electoral process.
Barriers to Aboriginal youth voting
Participants identified a number of reasons to explain why a significant proportion of Aboriginal youth do not vote in federal elections.
Relations with the federal government and political parties:
- The right to vote in federal elections was not extended to all Aboriginal people until 1960. For some, this is not a long time ago. For others, this is not a personal memory but an injustice they have learned.
- Negative experience in past relations with the federal government, which results in anger and disconnect with federal institutions.
- Lack of trust in political parties and elected representatives
- For some, a non-acceptance of Canadian citizenship
- Marginalization of Aboriginal people, including in their socio-economic conditions
Education/information about the federal electoral process:
- Lack of understanding of the federal electoral process – not only among youth but also within Aboriginal communities (e.g. chiefs, band councils, etc.)
- Lack of education among Aboriginal youth on the federal electoral system
- Lower education levels for some Aboriginal youth, which impedes understanding of the importance of voting
Representation within political parties and Parliament:
- Lack of Aboriginal representation and leadership in federal political parties and Parliament
- Lack of issues that affect Aboriginal people in the platforms of political parties
- Limited access to members of Parliament, political parties and the electoral process in general
On the question of why Aboriginal youth should vote or not, most comments fell into one of two groups. A number of participants said that Aboriginal youth should vote because the federal government makes decisions that affect the quality of life of their family and their community. Other participants said that Aboriginal youth should not vote because they do not trust or have faith in the federal government. They added that the best way to influence the government is to be active within their own organizations; in turn, these organizations can make an impact by lobbying members of Parliament and the government.
Proposed actions for Elections Canada and Aboriginal communities
Visibility and involvement with Aboriginal communities:
- Elections Canada should be more present and visible within Aboriginal communities, taking into account their diversity, including at important Aboriginal events (e.g. National Aboriginal Day). It should hold roundtables such as this one in schools.
- Elections Canada should increase its partnerships with various Aboriginal organizations at the national and local levels.
Education/information about the electoral process:
- Aboriginal youth should be provided with more education and information about the electoral process, and not only at election time. It was suggested that Elections Canada establish youth relation offices in the various regions; the staff could, among other things, go to schools to speak about the electoral process.
- Some participants said that youth councils and committees are the best way to reach youth, and that Friendship Centres could help distribute information to the grassroots level.
- One participant proposed organizing mock elections, perhaps in Friendship Centres.
- Elections Canada should make greater use of Aboriginal media and publications from national organizations.
- Messages from well-known personalities (for example, Jordin Tootoo, Tina Keeper) should be included in advertising campaigns.
- Set up a mailing list between Elections Canada and Aboriginal youth organizations so the latter can distribute material in their regions.
- Some participants said that political parties have a responsibility to reach Aboriginal youth and to build trust relationships with them. One participant suggested that political parties might be given funds for activities to educate youth about voting.
- Have polling stations placed in band offices on reserves, Friendship Centres, as well as in the offices of provincial and territorial organizations.
- Hire people from the communities to go door-to-door – e.g. for targeted revision.
Parliamentary representation and the electoral system:
- One participant said that Elections Canada should undertake research on electoral systems and processes in other countries that guarantee representation for minority groups.
- Some participants said there is a need to look again at constitutional reform to build a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and federal institutions. There were a number of positive references to the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
- One participant suggested changing the rules for the redistribution process to specifically include the Aboriginal population in the concept of "community of interest."
- Some participants said it is important for national and other Aboriginal organizations to work together to strengthen their relationships.
- Build awareness, including with the government, that socio-economic conditions and various public policies have an impact on Aboriginal people's interest in voting.
- Build relationships with Aboriginal peoples that are based on trust and respect.
Participants at the roundtable on Aboriginal youth and the federal electoral process report back from their group discussion.
During the last session of the roundtable, each participant was invited to share what he or she had learned during the day and any specific suggestions.
One participant said that, in order to better understand the barriers to voting, it would be important to meet Aboriginal youth at the grassroots level. She said it was important to communicate to the government that there are barriers outside the electoral process that discourage young Aboriginal people from voting.
A participant said that the foundation of democracy is people choosing their own destiny and that the choice not to vote is an exercise of democratic rights. Another participant said that the decision to vote or not is a personal choice, but that it is important to make the system accessible and give the opportunity to everyone who wants to vote.
According to one participant, voting is not the only way of bringing about political change. She underlined the importance of working within Aboriginal associations, which can make an impact through their lobbying and other efforts.
A number of participants said they were pleased that Elections Canada had taken this opportunity to bring together and listen to Aboriginal youth. One participant expressed the hope that Elections Canada would continue the dialogue.
Ms. Courchene said that she drew two conclusions from the day's discussions: 1) the importance of education; and 2) the need to come together and for healing to take place, so that Aboriginal youth can move to the next stage.
Mr. Kingsley said that Aboriginal people in Canada have equality with respect to the right to vote. From his perspective, that reflection of equality, the right to vote, does not just concern the individual but society as a whole. He said he had been enriched by each person's participation and that an event such as the roundtable "allows real change to find a beginning."
To conclude, Mr. Williams commended the "quality and vitality" of the youth who were present. He said he had learned from the discussion and that he would transmit that to others through teaching. Looking to the future, he quoted the following saying: "If the result is the same, the difference might just be you."
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.