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Aboriginal People and the Federal Electoral Process: Participation Trends and Elections Canada′s Initiatives (January 2004)

Aboriginal participation in Canadian elections is an important issue that, so far, has not received adequate attention from the research community. This report provides an overview of socio-demographic and electoral participation trends for Aboriginal people living in Canada. With respect to federal electoral participation, the limited research indicates that Aboriginal people participate, on average, at levels considerably below those of the general population. As the first section of this report shows, there are a number of reasons for this trend, some of which may be addressed by administrative measures while others are of a political nature.

As the independent agency responsible for the conduct of federal elections and referendums, Elections Canada has a mandate to make the electoral process better known and accessible to all eligible Canadian electors, particularly those who may experience difficulties exercising their democratic right to vote. In this light, Elections Canada has undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at sensitizing Aboriginal people to their right to vote and making the electoral process more accessible. These are described in section 2 of this background paper. Section 3 provides an overview of activities Elections Canada is developing for the next election and beyond.

1. Socio-demographic and participation trends

a) Aboriginal peoples in Canada

According to the 2001 census, some 976,305 people – or 3.3% of the population of Canada – identified themselves as Aboriginal, that is, as belonging to either the Métis, Inuit or First Nations (Status and non-Status) peoples of Canada. Canada's Aboriginal population is highly diverse and spread across the country: there are more than 600 First Nations, many of which are relatively isolated; just over 286,000 Aboriginal persons live on reserves.Footnote 1

The Aboriginal population is younger than the Canadian population as a whole and increasingly urban. According to the 2001 census, 50% of Aboriginal people in Canada are 24 years of age or younger, compared to 31% of the general population. At the same time, 49% of Aboriginal people live in urban areas – up from 47% in the 1996 census.Footnote 2 As the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples recently observed, "For many young Aboriginal people, cities have been their only home."Footnote 3 Table 1 shows that the increasing urbanization of Aboriginal people is particularly significant in Western Canada. As of 2001, 25% of all Aboriginal people lived in 10 Canadian cities. Winnipeg had the greatest number, followed by Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.Footnote 4

Finally, Aboriginal people are highly mobile: one in five Aboriginal people moved in the 12 months prior to the 2001 census, compared to one in seven for the general Canadian population.

Table 1: Aboriginal population growth in selected census metropolitan areas (CMAs) and census agglomerations (CAs) (1996 and 2001)
  2001 1996 1  


Number of
of total
Number of
of total
Prince Albert 11,640 29.2 10,090 24.9 4.3
Sault Ste. Marie 5,610 7.2 3,580 4.3 2.9
Prince George 7,980 9.4 5,810 6.7 2.7
Greater Sudbury 7,385 4.8 4,815 2.9 1.9
Saskatoon 20,275 9.1 16,165 7.5 1.6
Winnipeg 55,755 8.4 45,750 6.9 1.5
Regina 15,685 8.3 13,610 7.1 1.2
Kamloops 5,470 6.4 4,425 5.2 1.2
Thunder Bay 8,200 6.8 7,355 5.9 0.9
Edmonton 40,930 4.4 32,825 3.8 0.6
Victoria 8,695 2.8 6,570 2.2 0.6
Calgary 21,915 2.3 15,200 1.9 0.4
Hamilton 7,270 1.1 5,460 0.9 0.2
Vancouver 36,860 1.9 31,140 1.7 0.2
London 5,640 1.3 4,490 1.1 0.2
Ottawa-Hull 2 13,485 1.3 11,500 1.2 0.1
Toronto 20,300 0.4 16,100 0.4 0
Montréal 11,085 0.3 9,965 0.3 0

Source: Statistics Canada: Aboriginal peoples of Canada: A demographic profile, 2003

1. In order to facilitate data comparisons, the 1996 CMA and CA data have been adjusted to reflect as closely as possible the 2001 CMA and CA boundaries.
2. Now known as Ottawa-Gatineau.

b) Aboriginal electoral participation: tendencies and factors

The limited research on Aboriginal electoral participation shows that, on average, the turnout of Aboriginal people at federal elections is lower than that of other Canadians.Footnote 5 A recent study conducted by Elections Canada found that in the 2000 federal election, the turnout rate for 296 polling stations located on reserves was 48 percent – that is, 16 percentage points lower than the turnout rate for the general population.Footnote 6 However, federal turnout among Aboriginal voters varies across communities and provinces; in some cases, it is higher than for the Canadian population as a whole.

At the same time, research shows that Aboriginal electoral participation rates vary across different types of elections – perhaps reflecting the relevance of issues at stake in federal, provincial and band elections. A study of Aboriginal electoral participation in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick found that turnout for band elections in those provinces in 1991 and 1992 ranged from 88 to 95 percent, while turnout in federal and provincial elections during the late 1980s and early 1990s ranged from 17.8 percent to 54.8 percent.Footnote 7 The authors of the study suggest that band elections are seen to be more important than federal or provincial elections because band councils are responsible for issues that matter a great deal to Aboriginal people and are thus closer to their day-to-day lives and needs. The authors also suggest that a concentration of political power at the band level may in part explain the high turnout rates in these elections.

On the impact of issues that matter to Aboriginal people, it is also noteworthy that, in the October 1995 referendums on Quebec sovereignty that the Crees and Inuit in Northern Quebec sponsored prior to the 'official' referendum vote, turnout was high: 77% for the referendum sponsored by the Crees, and about 75% for the one sponsored by the Inuit.Footnote 8

Researchers have identified a number of reasons for low Aboriginal participation in federal elections.

Historical. The right to vote in Canadian federal elections came to many Aboriginal people relatively recently. Inuit people received the right to vote in 1950. It was only in 1960 that First Nations people living on reserves acquired the right to vote at the federal level without having to give up their status under the Indian Act. As one researcher has noted, there is a history in Canada of using Aboriginal "enfranchisement as a tool of assimilation",Footnote 9 and the memory of this injustice lingers, even among those Aboriginal electors who came of age after 1960.

Socio-economic. Aboriginal people number disproportionately among the poor, the homeless, the transient and those without post-secondary education.Footnote 10 As was noted above, Aboriginal communities are also much younger than the general population. As the electoral behaviour research has consistently shown, each of these factors – poverty, mobility, low education and youth – is associated with low levels of voting.

Communications. A study conducted for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing cited inadequate media coverage, insufficient availability of media, and a failure to provide campaign materials and issues in Aboriginal languages as being among the factors that discourage Aboriginal participation.Footnote 11 Communication and transportation issues are particularly important in the North, where communities are small and relatively isolated. Another difficulty arises from the fact that modern election campaigns rely heavily on mass media and new information technologies to convey messages to voters while in many Aboriginal communities high value is placed on personal contact and face-to-face dialogue.

Geographic dispersion. It has been pointed out that there are very few electoral districts in which Aboriginal people constitute a significant enough percentage of the electorate to wield actual influence in electoral politics.Footnote 12 As Table 2 shows, Aboriginal people constituted the majority of electors in only 3 of the 301 federal electoral districts in place at the time of the 2001 census. They constituted sizeable minorities – that is 20% or more of the electorate – in seven additional ridings.

Political. Perhaps most important among the factors explaining low levels of Aboriginal participation in federal elections are "feelings of exclusion, ... a perceived lack of effectiveness, the non-affirmation of group difference by and within electoral politics, and the virtual lack of a group's presence in electoral politics." At the same time, "[Aboriginal people] see themselves as distinct from other Canadians and as belonging to 'nations within'; and as nations that are not represented 'within'."Footnote 13 However, Alan Cairns, one of Canada's leading scholars of Aboriginal politics, has argued that it is not incompatible to be actively involved within one's own community and to participate in the federal (and other) electoral processes. In his view, given that "Aboriginal people are inevitably caught up in the consequences of federal, provincial, territorial and, often, municipal politics, ... participation in these arenas is an essential support for self-government."Footnote 14

Table 2: Federal electoral districts where Aboriginal electors constitute 10 percent or more of the electorate (2001 census data)
Electoral district Aboriginal
electors (%)
Nunavut 79
Churchill 55
Churchill River 54
Western Arctic 45
Labrador 31
Kenora–Rainy River 25
Skeena 24
Yukon 20
Athabasca 20
Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik 20
Dauphin–Swan River 17
Prince Albert 16
Algoma–Manitoulin 14
Selkirk–Interlake 14
Winnipeg North Centre 14
Regina–Qu'Appelle 14
Cariboo–Chilcotin 14
Battlefords–Lloydminster 14
Winnipeg Centre 13
Saskatoon–Rosetown–Biggar 12
Lakeland 11
Peace River 10
Manicouagan 10
Prince George–Bulkley Valley 10
Prince George–Peace River 10
Timmins–James Bay 10

Source: Statistics Canada

2. Elections Canada's initiatives to date

Elections Canada has undertaken a number of initiatives since the 1990s to sensitize Aboriginal people to their right to participate in federal elections and referendums, and to make the electoral process more accessible to them. These initiatives, some of which have served as a model for other jurisdictions, include:

  1. Information and education programs
  2. Aboriginal Community Relations Officer program
  3. Aboriginal Elder and Youth program
  4. Placement of polling stations program

a) Information and education programs

The 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord was the first time Elections Canada attempted to reach Aboriginal voters in their own language, in accordance with the Referendum Act. After extensive consultations with Aboriginal organizations, the referendum question was translated into 37 of the 53 Aboriginal languages used in Canada. Communication activities in Aboriginal languages, including radio, television and print messages (with the potential to reach more than a million people), were continued during the 1997 and 2000 federal elections. The information campaigns drew on conclusions from the 1996 "Speak with the People" initiative, which involved consultations with members of 15 Aboriginal communities and almost 100 Aboriginal media organizations.

"Choosing Our Mascot" is an educational tool, launched in 1997, designed to introduce children between the ages of 5 and 10 to the Canadian electoral process and to the process of voting. Sponsored jointly by Elections Canada and Elections NWT, this tool provides children in groups with a learning kit that includes a glossary of electoral terms. Through a simulated election, which includes secret ballot voting and vote counting processes, they choose a "mascot" from among five animals of the Canadian North representing candidates.

b) Aboriginal Community Relations Officer program

This program, formerly called the Aboriginal Liaison Officer program, was first available in the 2000 general election. Returning officers were authorized to appoint an Aboriginal Liaison Officer (ALO) if their electoral districts contained:

  • at least one First Nations reserve, Métis settlement, Inuit hamlet or First Nations community not classified as an official reserve, and/or
  • an Aboriginal population off-reserve representing at least 10% of the total population of the riding

In total, 114 electoral districts were eligible for the program, and in 52 of them (or 46% of the total eligible) an ALO was appointed. However, only two ALOs were appointed in urban areas.

One of the duties of the ALO was to coordinate the Aboriginal Elder and Youth Program with communities that wished to participate.

c) Aboriginal Elder and Youth Program

The Aboriginal Elder and Youth Program (AEYP) evolved from the Elders program, which began in 1993, to which a youth element was added for the 1997 general election. The goal of the AEYP is to make the electoral process more accessible to Aboriginal communities by having Elders and youth present at polling stations to assist, interpret for, and provide information to Aboriginal electors. In the 2000 election, the number of communities that participated in the AEYP increased to 91 from 63 in the 1997 election.

Returning officers are also asked to appoint Aboriginal persons to work as election officers in polls predominantly for Aboriginal peoples, in addition to Elders and youth. Having election workers from the community helps ensure that Aboriginal electors feel welcome and are well served in the federal electoral process.

d) Placement of polling stations program

If a polling division is entirely comprised of a reserve or is mostly comprised of a reserve, returning officers are instructed to establish polling stations on the reserve, wherever the band council will allow it. In such cases, the polling station is usually located at the band council office or community centre. If the band council declines, the polling station is set up as close as possible to the outside boundary of the reserve. Aboriginal electors living off reserve vote at a regular polling station in the polling division in which they live.

3. Elections Canada's planned initiatives

In his presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources on January 28, 2003, the Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, reaffirmed his commitment to making the Canadian electoral system as welcoming as possible to Aboriginal people and mentioned that a number of initiatives were being considered to reinforce Elections Canada's activities. To this end, a working group, with representation from Elections Canada's various directorates, has been developing an action plan that is multi-faceted and flexible, and draws on consultations with Aboriginal leaders and youth.

Elections Canada will build on its experience of the past decade. At the same time, the diversity of Aboriginal communities requires initiatives that take greater account of differences among communities – for example, between those on-reserve and off-reserve (particularly urban). Elections Canada's approach also needs to reflect more fully the views and expectations of Aboriginal youth. Finally, adaptation is required – to suggestions that come forward from consultations with Aboriginal people and to information obtained from evaluations of Elections Canada's initiatives and from further research.

a) Accessibility of the electoral process

To help ensure that the electoral process is as accessible as possible to Aboriginal people, Elections Canada intends to expand the programs it developed since the 1993 election.

  • Aboriginal Community Relations Officers (ACROs): In addition to the existing criteria, returning officers will be authorized to appoint an ACROs if there is at least one Friendship Centre in the federal electoral district. This means that an ACRO could be appointed in up to 150 constituencies at the next general election. Enhanced leadership will be provided by a new manager of the Community Relations Officer program at Elections Canada.

  • Elders and youth program: Increasing the number of ACROs has the potential to expand the reach of the Elders and youth program. Returning officers and ACROs will be instructed to consider actively how the program can be used to greater advantage.

  • Election officers: Returning officers will be requested to make greater efforts to hire Aboriginal people as election officers. The participation of political parties and candidates who are entitled to recommend individuals for various positions will be sought to encourage the appointment of a greater number of Aboriginal people as election officers. Returning officers will also obtain suggestions from local Aboriginal communities, including youth organizations, as appropriate.

  • Polling stations on reserves: As a first step, Elections Canada will identify reserves where it was not possible to place polling stations at the 2000 election. A concerted effort will then be made to seek the First Nations' agreement to allow access for the next election.

The importance of the above-noted enhancements is being underlined during in-depth pre-election training sessions for returning officers. These sessions, along with consultations planned for the coming weeks (see c) below), may provide suggestions for further improvements to Elections Canada's field activities.

b) Communications initiatives

Elections Canada has retained the services of Spirit Creative, an agency staffed largely by Aboriginal people, to prepare a new advertising campaign for the next general election. The agency is paying close attention to the diversity of Aboriginal communities, and has obtained feedback through focus groups and 'circles of discovery'. It is expected that public service announcements and other elements of the campaign will be available in several Aboriginal languages. Extensive use of community newspapers and radio stations will allow the campaign to reach the greatest number of communities possible.

Greater attention must be paid to reaching Aboriginal people in cities. To this end, we are exploring, in consultation with the National Association of Friendship Centres, the possibility of collaborating with the 114 Friendship Centres across Canada. With their strong reputation and record of service to their communities, Friendship Centres would be effective partners in the federal electoral process, both as channels for the distribution of information and as potential locations for polling stations.

Finally, Elections Canada is exploring ways of providing a wider range of information on the federal electoral process to Aboriginal people, particularly youth, between elections. Its recent experience working in partnership with organizations interested in civic education will help it shape education and information tools to enhance understanding of and interest in the various aspects of the electoral and democratic processes.

c) Consultations and research

To assist Elections Canada in developing its action plan on Aboriginal people and the federal electoral process, the Chief Electoral Officer has consulted national Aboriginal associations. Between September and November 2003, he met with four national leaders: Mr. Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Mr. Dwight Dorey, National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples; Mr. Clément Chartier, President and National Spokesperson for the Métis National Council; and Mr. Jose Kusugak, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). These meetings provided a valuable opportunity for dialogue and information sharing. Over the coming weeks, further meetings will be held with these and other Aboriginal organizations.

On December 1, 2003, the Chief Electoral Officer met with the National Youth Committee of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. After outlining Elections Canada's mandate and the actions being developed to address low youth voter participation, he took note of participants' various suggestions for ways to encourage more Aboriginal youth to vote.

On January 17, 2004, Elections Canada and the Canadian Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education (CIRCLE) at Carleton University hosted a Roundtable on Aboriginal Youth and the Federal Electoral Process. This one-day event brought together youth representatives from the national Aboriginal associations, elders, researchers and representatives from Elections Canada. The roundtable provided an important opportunity to discuss directly with Aboriginal young people 1) the factors that influence decisions to vote or not; and 2) what can be done, both by Elections Canada and by Aboriginal communities, to increase understanding of and interest in the federal electoral process.

Finally, building on the November 2003 issue of Electoral Insight, which deals exclusively with Aboriginal electoral participation and is available on our Web site (, Elections Canada will continue to sponsor research and promote discussion and the exchange of information on this important question. Along with the internal evaluations of its programs that will be carried out following the next general election, this information will allow Elections Canada to further strengthen and adapt its programs and activities oriented towards Aboriginal people.


Footnote 1 Aboriginal Peoples of Canada: A Demographic Profile. Statistics Canada, January 2003, pp. 6 and 12.

Footnote 2 Ibid. p. 10.

Footnote 3 Urban Aboriginal Youth: An Action Plan for Change. Final Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, October 2003, p. 1.

Footnote 4 Aboriginal Peoples of Canada: A Demographic Profile, p. 10.

Footnote 5 Roger Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population: An Assessment of Aboriginal Electoral Districts," in Robert A. Milen, ed., Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada, Vol. 9 of the Research Studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), p. 160; Elections Canada, "Elections Canada Initiatives Concerning Aboriginal Electors: Elections Canada 1992-1999" (Presentation to the Assembly of First Nations, January 1999); Elections Canada, Thirty-fifth General Election 1993: Official Voting Results (Ottawa: Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, 1993); Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Thirty-sixth General Election 1997: Official Voting Results (CD-ROM: Catalogue No. SE-1-1997-MRC).

Footnote 6 Daniel Guérin, "Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Federal Elections: Trends and Implications," Electoral Insight, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 2003), p. 12.

Footnote 7 David Bedford, "Aboriginal Voter Participation in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick," Electoral Insight, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 2003), pp. 17-18.

Footnote 8 Jill Wherrett, "Les peuples autochtones et le référendum de 1995 au Québec : les questions qui se posent," Library of Parliament Research Branch, February 1996, p. 6.

Footnote 9 Anna Hunter, "Exploring the Issues of Aboriginal Representation in Federal Elections," Electoral Insight, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 2003), p. 30.

Footnote 10 For statistics on poverty, unemployment and post-secondary education among Aboriginal people, see Urban Aboriginal Youth: An Action Plan for Change, pp. 12-13 and 26.

Footnote 11 Valerie Alia, "Aboriginal Peoples and Campaign Coverage in the North," in Robert A. Milen, ed., Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada, Vol. 9 of the Research Studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), pp. 108-109.

Footnote 12 Kiera Ladner, "The Alienation of Nation: Understanding Aboriginal Electoral Participation," Electoral Insight, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 2003), p. 22.

Footnote 13 Ibid. pp. 21-22 and 23.

Footnote 14 Alan C. Cairns, "Aboriginal People's Electoral Participation in the Canadian Community," Electoral Insight, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 2003), p. 8.