Sask Party voting changes direct attack on First Nations, democracy
By Warren Gordon McCall
Regina Elphinstone-Centre NDP MLA
Friday, September 23, 2011
There is something rotten with the state of Saskatchewan democracy. First Nations people living on-reserve have been targeted by the Sask Party in a clear effort to reduce their voting rights.
As part of recent changes by the government to the Election Act, photo identification will be required by all Saskatchewan voters casting their ballots in this fall’s provincial election.
This change has not come in response to any voter irregularities in previous elections. Indeed, no such problems have been identified by Saskatchewan’s Chief Electoral Officer.
So what prompted this unprecedented action?
This change has everything to do with blocking the right to vote of groups who are less likely to have photo identification – urban young, poor, seniors and First Nations people – and who don’t’ typically vote for Conservative parties like the Sask Party.
The federal Conservatives have brought in similar voting changes, and for the same reasons as the Sask Party, but at least they have allowed some flexibility in how the rules are applied. Under the federal system, if a voter has not been enumerated (and on-reserve enumerations are typically quite poor) and they don’t have photo identification, an individual can still vote provided they have some sort of identification proving who they are and where they live.
For the second requirement, the feds (and BC and Ontario) allow for the use of something called an attestation. An attestation is a legal document signed by the reserve's chief and council, or their designate, affirming that the individual lives on reserve. In this spring's federal election it is estimated that hundreds - if not thousands - of on-reserve First Nations voters used this procedure to gain access to the ballot box and make their democratic choice. Elections Canada reported no problems with the process.
And yet, this past August, the Sask Party deliberately brought in regulations that will deny the use of attestations for on-reserve First Nations voters. To add insult to injury, attestations will be allowed in post-secondary student residences, long-term care homes, and homeless shelters – as is the case with the federal regulations. This means the only group being singled out and denied the right to use attestations is on-reserve First Nations people who have this right in the federal system and in B.C. and Ontario.
This is wrong. It smacks of racism. It is nothing short of disenfranchisement.
The Sask Party knows full well that the NDP has enjoyed tremendous support from First Nations people across the province and in particular in constituencies such as Athabasca, Cumberland, Meadow Lake and Saskatchewan Rivers. As a matter of fact, without the support of on-reserve First Nations people, the NDP would not have won these seats in past elections. By targeting on-reserve voters, the Sask Party is trying to increase its chances of winning these seats while disenfranchising First Nations voters in the process. It is simply wrong.
There is simply no evidence of any voting irregularities that would require such legislative changes. These changes target people who are typically less likely to vote – urban poor, seniors, young people and in particular First Nations people – and who, when they do vote, don’t tend to cast their ballots for right wing parties like the Sask Party.
These changes go beyond party politics and right to the core of extending democratic rights to all Saskatchewan citizens. In particular, on-reserve First Nations people were denied the right to vote in provincial elections until only very recently and their voter turnout in elections they have been eligible to vote in has not been typically high. With the Sask Party purposely and blatantly putting obstacles in place to prevent First Nations people from voting, it will only breed more division and mistrust in our province long after this election is over.
Even the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper has weighed in on these Election Act changes stating in a recent editorial, “…if even one Saskatchewan voter were to lose their access to the ballot box, then it would be too many.”
Several First Nations leaders have also spoken out against these legislative voting changes including Tony Cote. Tony is a member of the Cote First Nation and a decorated Korean War veteran. His great-grandfather was one of the signatories of Treaty Four. When Tony says this change to our Elections Act is wrong and he fears it will block First Nations from voting in this fall’s election, he is echoing the sentiments and concerns of many other First Nations leaders.
Premier Brad Wall has said many times that we are all Treaty people and he is right. However, if the Premier truly means what he says he needs to listen to Tony Cote and other First Nations leaders and reverse this draconian legislation. Saskatchewan First Nations people need better, they deserve better and the future of our democracy depends on it.