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First Nations vote a potential ‘kingmaker’ in federal election outcomes for northern Ontario

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Candidates and party leaders are criss-crossing their ridings and the country seeking every last vote in the final days of campaigning for Monday’s federal election.

In the 10 federal ridings that make up northern Ontario, First Nations community members are an important demographic for the parties to court.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a national organization that advocates for 634 First Nations, released a report at the end of August that listed the 24 federal ridings they say First Nations voters will have the greatest chance at determining the outcome.

The Kenora riding was third on that list, with about 33 per cent of the electorate made up of First Nations people, according to the AFN’s data. Additionally, about a third of all First Nations in Ontario are within that riding.

“All parties should consider the role that First Nations issues and electors play in the potential role of ‘kingmaker’ in the upcoming Sept. 20, 2021, election,” the AFN’s statement said.

Four other ridings in the region are included on the AFN’s list:

  • Thunder Bay–Rainy River, with 10 per cent First Nations electorate.
  • Sault Ste. Marie, with 6.2 per cent First Nations electorate.
  • Timmins–James Bay, with 11.4 per cent First Nations electorate.
  • Algoma–Manitoulin–Kapuskasing, with 11.8 per cent First Nations electorate.

On-reserve voter turnout something to watch for

But to realize their ability to determine outcomes in the federal ridings, First Nations voters will have to show up at the polling stations, Tania Cameron told CBC News in an interview.

Leading up to the 2015 election, Cameron led the non-partisan Rock the Vote campaign from her home and sometimes her mom’s van in Kenora, Ont., which encouraged people living on reserve in First Nations to vote. Along with a dedicated group of volunteers scattered across northwestern Ontario, they set up voter registration clinics to help get people to the polling stations.

The result in 2015 was staggering, with a record 61.5 per cent of on-reserve residents turning out to vote. There were even reports of polling stations in First Nations across northwestern Ontario running out of ballots because of the high turnout.

While turnout dropped to 51.8 per cent in the 2019 election, Cameron said the legacy of the Rock the Vote campaign lives on.

“In the Kenora riding, there are 40 First Nations. Of the 40 First Nations, 37 generally will have polling stations,” she said. “We have a voter base on reserve that can, if we decided to work together, determine who will be the next [member of Parliament] for Kenora.”

Barriers to voting on reserve persist

But barriers remain for people living on reserve to vote, Cameron added, including having pieces of identification.

“Particularly in the fly-in communities, they won’t have the driver’s licence because in order to get a driver’s licence, you’ve got to go into a town that has Service Ontario, and just the cost of that is a barrier. So then it’s finding what other piece of ID they might have.”

An Elections Canada report into Indigenous electoral participation cited a 2015 online survey by the AFN that indicated 21 per cent of First Nations respondents selected ID requirements as a barrier to voting.

Changes to the federal Elections Act in 2018 expanded the types of identification that could be used to vote, but Cameron said those challenges persist.

First Nations vote a potential 'kingmaker' in federal election outcomes for northern Ontario
Tania Cameron says the legacy of the Rock the Vote campaign, a non-partisan effort in 2015 to increase voter turnout on First Nations reserves, lives on, and she hopes to see a high turnout again in 2021. (Tania Cameron)

She also said First Nations electors will sometimes receive incorrect voting cards.

“One of the frustrating things I’ve come across is that there’s three communities — Whitefish Bay and the two Northwest Angles, 33 and 37 — they get put into the wrong community. So they’ll get their voting cards that say they have to go to the neighbouring community to go vote,” Cameron said.

“Sometimes that’s not a problem if they have a vehicle. If you don’t have a vehicle, you’re not going to walk five or 10 kilometres to the next community to go vote.”

NDP looks to pick up seats in northern Ontario

Across the 10 ridings in northern Ontario, the New Democratic Party is looking to benefit from historically strong First Nations support.

Analyses by CBC have shown the NDP won the First Nations vote in on-reserve polling divisions for at least the last three federal elections.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is looking to capitalize on that, having already made two visits during the campaign to major urban centres in northern Ontario, including Thunder Bay and Sudbury. Candidates in the region also unveiled a platform specific it earlier this month.

Since the 2019 election, Cameron has been working to increase NDP voter turnout in First Nations across northwestern Ontario. In the Kenora riding alone, she said, 31 have historically voted overwhelmingly in support of the NDP.

“If I can target those 31 and ask them to get an additional 25 people [in each of the First Nations to get out and vote NDP], then it would be the First Nations that will determine the vote,” Cameron said, adding she hopes this election will get Kenora its first female, first Indigenous and first NDP MP, in Janine Seymour.

But the race in Kenora riding, which was created in 2004, is expected to be tightly contested.

Seymour is up against Conservative incumbent Eric Melillo, who won in 2019 by 1,100 votes in large part due to support in urban centres along the Trans-Canada Highway, and Liberal candidate David Bruno, whose campaign is getting help from high-profile Liberal candidates Patty Hajdu and Marc Miller, both of whom served in high-profile cabinet posts under Justin Trudeau during the previous term.

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