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Electoral Insight – Aboriginal Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – November 2003

Aboriginal Voter Participation in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick

Aboriginal Voter Participation in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick

David Bedford
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of New Brunswick

Arend Lijphardt's 1996 Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association emphasized the problems faced by democratic states when participation in the electoral process is unequal. Participation, which is widely regarded as "an intrinsic democratic good,"Footnote 1 is instrumental to influence, so that groups that have lower rates of participation have less effect on system outcomes.Footnote 2 Lijphardt further noted that the literature on voter turnout has concluded that those who are socio-economically disadvantaged and have a lower overall status in society also have significantly lower rates of voter turnout, exacerbating their general powerlessness to effect outcomes.Footnote 3 He advocated, therefore, that students of politics direct their attention to means of increasing participation rates.

Over the years, various reasons for differences in voter turnout have been proposed. A small number of variables has emerged in the literature as critical. Demographic factors such as education, income and sex, and personal psychological predispositions such as a sense of efficacy and a belief in civic responsibility, have all been shown to correlate with voter turnout.Footnote 4 Furthermore, it is commonplace that elections of greater national importance have larger turnouts – often two or three times greater – than those of a purely local nature. While there are still unresolved questions about voter turnout, there is general agreement on the basic parameters.

The data on voting within the Aboriginal community, which are as yet still incomplete, sit very uncomfortably with the orthodox understanding of electoral participation.Footnote 5 The startling trends that emerge from the data yield new insights into the understanding of voting behaviour, as well as into the issues of Aboriginal self-governance and the relationship between Aboriginal communities and the Canadian state. Let us begin the discussion by presenting the data.


A description of the nature of the data is in order.Footnote 6 The data for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, presented in Tables 14, are a census of all polls that were wholly included within reserve boundaries. As a result, there can be a high degree of confidence that (almost) all electors included are Status Indians. The data yield important information about First Nations persons living on reserves. However, this method of data collection leaves out many Status Indians and other Aboriginal persons. Therefore, it tells us nothing about the increasingly important urban or off-reserve Aboriginal populations, who must be surveyed using different techniques. Tables 5 and 6 present data on band elections in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Finally, Table 7 presents data on First Nations voter turnout in provincial elections across the rest of Canada. This information represents an incomplete sampling of reserve communities. Included in the study were 59 reserves with polling divisions wholly contained within the reserve boundaries. They were chosen at random from among the reserves that had wholly contained polling divisions.

Tables 1 and 2 present the results of First Nations voter turnout in New Brunswick, in federal and provincial elections respectively. The decline in voter turnout is more dramatic in New Brunswick than in any other province. Turnout in federal elections declined from 66.8 percent of First Nations electors in 1965 to 17.8 percent in 1988. However, Daniel Guérin's analysis of turnout on First Nations reserves in the 2000 federal election (see his article in this issue), indicates a subsequent improvement. Guérin reports a turnout rate of 41 percent in the polling stations covered by his research. The data for provincial elections show a marked decline during the period examined, dropping from 64.4 percent First Nations turnout in 1967 to 27.6 percent in 1991.

Table 1
Rate of First Nations Voter Turnout in Federal Elections in New Brunswick 1962-1988
Year %
Number of electors about whom information was available
1962 70.0 271
1963 63.1 577
1965 66.8 542
1968 53.2 594
1972 60.4 748
1974 56.7 803
1979 38.0 960
1980 40.3 992
1984 44.0 985
1988 17.8 1,312

Table 2
Rate of First Nations Voter Turnout in New Brunswick Provincial Elections 1967-1991
Year %
Number of electors about whom information was available
1967 64.4 908
1970 62.0 988
1974 61.2 1,511
1978 37.7 1,502
1982 46.9 1,749
1987 32.1 2,060
1991 27.6 2,340

The results of our study of First Nations voter turnout in Nova Scotia showed a similar pattern, although with noticeably higher turnouts at both the beginning and end of the period investigated. As seen in Table 3, First Nations participation rates declined in federal elections, from 89.3 percent in 1962 to 54 percent in 1988 (Guérin reports a First Nations turnout rate of 41 percent in Nova Scotia in the 2000 federal election). The Nova Scotia provincial elections (Table 4) showed a decline in First Nations turnout from 67.2 percent in 1967 to 45.2 percent in 1993.

Table 3
Rate of First Nations Voter Turnout in Federal Elections in Nova Scotia 1962-1988
Year %
Number of electors about whom information was available
1962 89.3 689
1963 87.4 728
1965 82.8 795
1968 72.5 790
1972 72.6 1,155
1974 61.3 1,218
1979 49.5 1,508
1980 51.9 1,478
1984 53.4 1,552
1988 54.0 2,244

Table 4
Rate of First Nations Voter Turnout in Nova Scotia Provincial Elections 1963-1993
Year %
Number of electors about whom information was available
1963 52.0 661
1967 67.2 987
1970 70.1 1,188
1974 65.4 1,401
1978 57.9 1,758
1981 60.1 2,150
1984 59.8 2,304
1988 54.8 2,840
1993 45.2 3,127

Table 7 presents First Nations turnout results from provincial elections in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. The data from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland were either too small to be significant or impossible to collect. Looking at the period from 1967 to 1991, we see a decline in First Nations turnout in all provinces except Quebec, which had consistently low turnout throughout the period. Additionally, by the 1990s all provinces showed turnout percentages for reserve communities that were significantly lower than for the rest of the population. Ontario, Quebec and Alberta all had percentages of voter turnout on reserves of less than 30.

Table 5
Rate of Voter Turnout in New Brunswick Band Elections 1972-1992
Year %
Number of electors about whom information was available
1972-74 82.0 695
1975-77 94.2 720
1978 96.9 353
1979 81.1 599
1980 87.8 654
1981 91.0 1,042
1982 88.7 690
1983 86.7 835
1984 93.5 505
1985 87.1 1,307
1986 92.2 606
1987 91.4 1,471
1988 88.8 1,036
1989 87.5 1,269
1990 91.2 1,274
1991 88.2 1,391
1992 94.9 760

Finally, Tables 5 and 6 present what are perhaps the most surprising data. Band elections in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia show consistently very high turnouts. New Brunswick's band elections varied from 86.7 percent in 1983 to 96.9 percent in 1978. Nova Scotia showed a similar pattern with an overall average in the two provinces of about 90 percent.

Table 6
Rate of Voter Turnout in Nova Scotia Band Elections 1978-1992
Year %
Number of electors about whom information was available
1978 90.2 254
1980 91.3 507
1981 73.8 183
1982 88.9 1,427
1983 93.8 128
1984 90.1 1,547
1985 94.5 145
1986 94.4 815
1987 55.6 689
1988 91.0 2,712
1989 90.6 328
1990 83.5 3,363
1991 90.0 489
1992 92.0 3,215

Analysis and conclusions

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker achieved a long-held personal goal when Parliament extended the franchise to all Status Indians in 1960. They were no longer required to give up their Indian status in order to vote.

The data for on-reserve voting require explanation, and the commonly used concepts and explanatory models are not fully adequate to the task. The data are sufficiently anomalous to raise questions about the explanations for voter turnout used to account for voting in the United States, Canada and Western Europe. In the absence of more complete information on the political behaviour and attitudes of Aboriginal persons regarding voting, the political process, the various social-psychological determinants such as sense of efficacy and civic duty, and of correlations of changes in income and education to voting, no clear picture can emerge and no definite conclusions can be drawn. More study is required, and this should be a priority for researchers in voting behaviour and political participation.

However, agnosticism is an intellectual virtue that can inhibit as well as enhance research; hence, this article will offer a pair of explanations to account for the low and declining turnout in "Canadian" elections and the very high turnout in band elections. As is well known, Status Indians have had to follow a twisted road to the ballot box. Male Indians were enfranchised in 1885 under John A. Macdonald's Conservative government. Laurier's Liberals repealed the Electoral Franchise Act in 1898, removing the right to vote for Status Indians. The stated reason was that, as wards of the state, they could not act independently and freely. Unofficially, as Malcolm Montgomery argued, they had "committed the crime of not voting the right way."Footnote 7 They could not vote again in Canadian federal elections until 1960 and only by the 1960s in most provincial elections. Prior to 1960, Status Indians could only vote if they gave up their status through the "enfranchisement" process defined in the Indian Act.

The interpretation of the low and declining participation in the electoral process by on-reserve Status Indians that overwhelmingly presents itself is, in the vocabulary of voting literature, the declining sense of "civic duty" among Aboriginal persons. Using more politically meaningful language, the past 40 years have seen a significant decline in the self-identification of Aboriginal persons as Canadians. Clearly, much more research needs to be done to confirm this conjecture. However, based on the published works of Aboriginal scholars and activists, the policy and political positions taken by Aboriginal leaders and organizations, and extensive personal contacts and discussions, it is reasonable to conclude that the voting statistics presented here articulate an important political, cultural and attitudinal change within Aboriginal communities.

If this hypothesis is correct, then the voter turnout data indicate that there is a crisis of legitimacy facing the Canadian state. A significant proportion of a group that makes up 4 percent of the total population of Canada has serious and deep-seated questions about the legitimate authority of the Canadian state and its control over their lives.

Perhaps more surprising than the data on federal and provincial elections is the very high turnout for band elections. Conventional voting analysis sees local elections as less important and as having turnout rates of half to one third those of national elections. Yet, here we see the opposite. Again, what will be proposed here is still speculative, but is based on extensive observation of band-level politics and numerous personal contracts and conversations. The extraordinarily high turnout in band elections during the period examined results from a pathology in the politics and governance of reserve communities. Under the regulations of the Indian Act and the federal government's 20-year policy of devolving self-government authority to reserves, band councils have come to wield unprecedented control over the lives of reserve community members. Furthermore, not only are the areas of jurisdiction extensive, but control over these areas is concentrated in a few hands. Unlike the experience of non-Aboriginal Canadians, for those persons living on reserves the same small number of people, wielding a single political authority, controls access to housing and welfare, education and education grants, policing, municipal services, employment, community economic development, and health and social services. This is in addition to being the avenue for contact between the community and government and other Aboriginal organizations.

This degree of concentration of political and economic power can distort the normal functioning of democratic politics. Legitimate democratic politics requires that those who have lost an election or a decision still accept the outcome. This means that democracy works best when the stakes are low. The poverty of many reserves, and the lack of access to resources outside the political system of the reserve, result in people who are dependent on the resources that pass to the community through the chief and band council. The stakes are, thus, enormously high; so, too, are the incentives to vote in band elections. Let me be clear, the problem is not corruption. While measures such as the proposed changes to community governance are welcome, they do not address the real issue. Similarly, the ongoing policy of the incremental devolution of self-government authority only exacerbates the current situation. Where such additional authority is acquired, even more will hang on the results of band elections.

More study of voting patterns will help illuminate a number of issues at the centre of the political life of reserve communities. Key information can be gained from further investigation into the (non) voting patterns of Aboriginal persons and into their causes. Those expert in the study of voting must turn their attention to Aboriginal voting. Generic studies of voting across Canada do not apply to these uniquely situated communities with political issues and ideas that are often very different from those of other Canadians.

Table 7
First Nations Turnout in Provincial Elections


Footnote 1 Arend Lijphart, "Unequal Participation: Democracy's Unresolved Dilemma", The American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 1 (March 1997), pp. 114.

Footnote 2 Lijphart, "Unequal Participation," p. 1.

Footnote 3 Lijphart, "Unequal Participation," p. 2.

Footnote 4 See, for example: Elisabeth Gidengil, "Canada Votes: A Quarter Century of Canadian National Voting Studies," Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. XXV, Issue 2 (June 1992), pp. 219248; and Kurt Lang and Gladys Lang, Voting and Non-Voting (Waltham, Massachusetts: Blaisdell Publishing Co., 1968).

Footnote 5 Research for this paper was conducted with Sidney Pobihushchy and was originally published as "On-Reserve Status Indian Voter Participation in the Maritimes," co-authored with Sidney Pobihushchy, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies Vol. 15, Issue 2 (1996), pp. 255278.

Footnote 6 The data on voting in federal and provincial elections were collected from all polls that were wholly contained within the boundaries of the reserves examined. In the early years, relatively few polls were so contained. The number increased over the years as Elections Canada attempted to harmonize poll and reserve boundaries. Data on band elections were collected and made available by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Footnote 7 Malcolm Montgomery, "The Six Nations and the MacDonald Franchise," Ontario History Vol. LVII, Issue 1 (1965), p. 25.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.