GRSJ224/Electoral Participation of the Canadian Indigenous Population

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Electoral Participation of the Canadian Indigenous Population

Free and fair elections serve as one of the fundamental conditions in any democracy. In Canada, a democratic state, the electoral process plays a significant role as it allows citizens to govern society by electing representatives to represent their interest in authoritative institutions. Although significantly important, many individuals opt to take part in the process. Specifically, over the years, studies have shown a substantial drop in the electoral participation rate of the Canadian indigenous population. Due to factors like the development of anti-colonial perspectives, legitimacy issues, and structural barriers, a high degree of political alienation has risen which threatens the democratic electoral system.

Elections in Canada  

In Canada, the electoral system is set up in a way that translates voter's preferences into representative seats within a corresponding elected institution. Specifically, eligible voters express their preference by way of voting; Then, ballots of an electoral district are counted to determine which candidates are selected to represent the district within the corresponding legislative body[1]. In this context, Electoral Systems act as a democratic process that enables voters to govern society by way of electing representatives.

Canada holds impartial elections for legislatures in several jurisdictions, the most prominent being for the federal and provincial governments. On the one hand, federal elections are conducted by means of a plurality voting system, and allow Canadians to vote for their local Member of Parliament (MP) to represent their constituency in the House of Commons[2]. In a similar structure, provincial elections allow electors to select a candidate to represent their electoral district within a provincial parliament[2].  

Indigenous Electoral Participation in Canada

First Nations voter turnout rates in federal, provincial, and band elections in Nova Scotia, 1962-1993.

Voter turnout among Aboriginal Canadians varies relative to their non-Aboriginal counterparts. This is the case in both federal and provincial elections. According to studies that draw on both official polling results and public opinion surveys, it is evident that throughout past nation-wide elections, the electoral participation rate of aboriginal individuals has not only decreased, but has also been lower than compared to the non-aboriginal community[3]. For instance, Elections Canada reported that the official turnout among registered Indian’s in 2004 was 6% lower than in the 1997 federal elections[4]. On a similar note, although indigenous turnout among provincial elections has also been averagely lower, the gap differentiating the two communities has been smaller than that of federal elections (Figure 1&2).e

First Nations voter turnout rates in federal, provincial, and band elections in New Brunswick, 1962-1991.

Furthermore, studies also suggest that the voter turnout rate varies amongst aboriginal people living on-reserve and those living off-reserve. According to Elections Canada, the electoral participation rate amongst urban indigenous individuals is significantly higher than those living on reserve land. Specifically, in accordance with the 2004 federal elections, the participation rate of urban indigenous people was 15% higher than those living on-reserve[5].

Factors Affecting Indigenous Electoral Participation in Canada

The Canadian Political system maintains a distance between the Indigenous Political community and the Canadian electoral system. This differentiation between the two groups can be traced to a number of blockades- including the development of anti-colonial perspectives, legitimacy issues, and structural barriers.

Development of Anti-Colonial Perspectives

Anti-colonial indigenous perspectives contribute to the political opposition of aboriginal electoral participation. Actions taken by the federal and provincial governments throughout history have formed current anti-colonial perspectives.

Specifically, according to Anna Hunter of the University of Saskatchewan, the Department of Indian Affairs historic use of enfranchisement as an instrument of assimilation has developed the fearful notion that electoral participation serves as the contemporary process to assimilate the indigenous population into Canadian society[6]. Historically, in the narrative of first nation people, the act of voting in colonial elections has been connected to assimilation processes into greater society. Ranging from acts like the push for the White Paper by the Trudeau administration in 1969[7], to the preservation of the voluntary enfranchisement policy until 1960[8], anti-colonial perspectives have developed and persisted.

Legitimacy Issues

The lack of first nation representation within Canadian political institutions has created a legitimacy issue threatening the federal and provincial governments. In other words, the declining rates of electoral participation are also due to the high degree of the indigenous communitie's political alienation[9].

Canadian aboriginals and their interests are underrepresented in both levels of government generally, and in the House of Commons in particular. On the one hand, a lack of support for aboriginal interests is due to a deficiency of political incentives for politicians[6]. Such lack of incentives arises as the aboriginal community lacks the necessary population amount to collectively affect voting outcomes. Furthermore, aboriginal underrepresentation can also be observed in the federal House of Commons. In the most recent elections, of the 338 member seats, only 10 indigenous candidates (4 first nation, 4 Métis, and 2 Inuits) were elected[10].  

Structural Barriers

Structural barriers refer to the impediments inscribed within the electoral. In the Canadian political system, the most effectual barrier is the economic dynamics associated with the geographical dispersal of the aboriginal community.

Geographical dispersal refers to the process that involves the movement of an individual or community away from the general population, to another location. In the case of the aboriginal community, such geographical dispersal takes form in their move to secluded residential territories. In the past, according to studies examining the subject, the remote location of the aboriginal communities has hindered the effective mobilization of electors as it has increased the cost for both candidates and the media to reach those jurisdictions[9].


  1. Doody, Brian (Dec 3 2007). "Canada's Electoral System: Introduction to Federal and Provincial Elections". Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. 2.0 2.1 McCullough, J.J (Feb 2016). "Canada Guide".
  3. Dalton, Jennifer (2007). "Alienation and Nationalism: Is it Possible to Increase First Nations Voter Turnout in Ontario?". Canadian Journal of Native Studies: 247–291.
  4. Harell Allison, Panagos Dimitrios, Mathews Scott. "Explaining Aboriginal Turnout in Federal Elections: Evidence from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba" (PDF).CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. Bedford, David, and Sidney Pobihushchy. (1996). "On-Reserve Status Indian Voter Participation in the Maritimes". Canadian Journal of Native Studies.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hunter, Anna. "Exploring the Issues of Aboriginal Representation in Federal Elections". Elections Canada. Retrieved Juyl 20 2020. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. Cardinal, Harold (2009). "The White Paper 1969". Retrieved July 23 2020. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  8. Mccardle, Bennet (February 7 2006). "Enfranchisement". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 25 2020. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Kiera L. Ladner and Michael McCrossan. "The Electoral Participation of Aboriginal People" (PDF). Elections Canada.
  10. Deer, Jessica (October 22, 2019). "10 Indigenous candidates elected to the House of Commons". CBC News. Retrieved July 25, 2020.