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The StarPhoenix, Thursday, October 16, 2008

Orchard criticizes voting process
Identification requirement problematic, candidate says

By David Hutton

David Orchard and his Liberal campaign team say something must be done to smooth the voting process for aboriginal and rural voters, many of whom were shut out at the polls Tuesday because they lacked proper identification, weren't enumerated or were told to vote at distant polling stations.

Orchard, who was defeated by Conservative Rob Clarke in the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, said a requirement that voters must show identification -- including proof of an address -- posed a huge challenge on election night. Many First Nations voters showed up without government-issued identification or a recognized address complete with their name and street number, he said. Even those who did show up were intimidated by large signs outside polling stations, which reminded voters they needed identification with a street address.

"I just don't understand the reason for a street address," Orchard said. "It's entirely unacceptable. Most rural people and aboriginal people don't have a street address, so they simply turn around right at the door. They'd read the sign and turn around. . . . This is Canada; you'd think we could do better."

Parliament voted to amend the federal Elections Act almost two years ago as a way of stopping voter fraud. But for some aboriginal people, their only address is the name of their reserve, Orchard said. Desnethe received one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country at 45.9 per cent. A few of the northernmost reserves had turnouts of less than 20 per cent.

The voter turnout this election was the lowest in Canadian history, according to the preliminary figures from Elections Canada. Only 59.1 per cent -- 13.8 million out of 23.4 million -- of eligible voters cast a ballot, breaking the previous low from the 2004 election.

Serge Fleyfel, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, said complaints are assessed after each election to try to make the system run more smoothly. Elections Canada worked with aboriginal communities to make them aware of the new rules, Fleyfel said. The agency faxed 1,000 flyers to aboriginal businesses and ran a widespread advertising campaign that targeted reserves.

"We will, of course, try to find ways to improve," he said.

At Flying Dust First Nation, deputy returning officer Della Aubichon said around 25 voters showed up without identification and asked those volunteering at the polling station to waive the requirement or vouch for them.

The voter turnout on the reserve was 33 per cent.

"A lot of people said, 'You know me, so don't worry about it,' " Aubichon said. "It would have been easier if we worked at another reserve where everybody doesn't know each other."

Polling stations gave mixed signals, said Grant Orchard, David Orchard's campaign manager. Some returning officers said the voter card was fine on its own, or with a treaty card, while others were strict in requiring valid identification, even when election volunteers knew the voter.

"It was a mess," he said.

Leon Charles, a band councillor at Grandmother's Bay, said several people on the reserve were sent to vote more than 50 kilometres away because of the location of their post office box, a problem that repeated itself at many northern reserves. Dozens of people in Grandmother's Bay weren't enumerated and dozens more, frustrated with the identification process, turned around and went home when they were asked to produce valid identification, he said. Only 58 of the 150 eligible voters on the reserve cast a ballot.

"People are so frustrated," Charles said. "We're not being listened to to begin with, so this just makes it more difficult."

Kenneth Thomas, the former chief of the Witchekan Lake First Nation, gave an impassioned speech following Orchard's defeat Tuesday night. He said the problem lies in the enumeration process. Most reserves in the province are dealing with overcrowding so hundreds of people don't end up on the voting list, which is outdated.

"With my experience in talking with First Nations people in our community and in other communities, they're not aware of the issues in government," he said. "The government has segregated us . . . and because of that our First Nations people didn't take the election serious enough."

dhutton@sp.canwest.com


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