BY DOUG CUTHAND, THE STARPHOENIX
In 1960, John Diefenbaker, a.k.a. Dief the Chief, amended the section of the Indian Act that denied Indians the right to vote. Our people would exercise their right to vote in Canadian elections for the first time in history in the 1963 election. Diefenbaker was lauded at the time for his enlightened thinking.
Now, 54 years later, Pierre Poilievre, a.k.a. Skippy, wants to weaken that right by adding roadblocks and complicating the voting process. His new legislation, with the Orwellian title the Fair Elections Act, is a blatant attempt to tip the playing field in the Conservatives' favour.
The Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women's Association of Canada last week voiced their concerns from an aboriginal perspective. Two proposed changes are of particular concern.
First, the AFN has been working with Elections Canada to target youth and increase voter turnout. Provisions of the new bill limit the communication role of Elections Canada and virtually remove its advocacy function. Voter turnout among First Nations communities and First Nations persons who live off-reserve is very low, and if we are to participate in Canadian political discourse, it is necessary to encourage our participation.
Second, the removal of the vouching provisions in the elections act will be problematic in many First Nations communities. The Tories maintain that Elections Canada allows 39 pieces of identification, but these documents are rarely found in First Nations.
What they don't say is that if you don't have a piece of government-issued photo ID, then you must provide two of those 39 pieces of ID and one of them must have your street address. First Nations people don't have street addresses. If you ask someone on the rez where they live, they will point with their lips and say, "Over there."
The types of identification First Nations people carry include a status card, which has a photo but no address. The health card has no photo or address. A driver's licence has both a photo and an address, but many First Nations people don't have a licence.
Vouching is a valuable tool that enables many First Nations persons to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
The colonial office has been very slow to replace treaty cards, and blank copies are provided to band offices on a limited basis.
A cynic might see this as a deliberate act. I do.
The representatives from the AFN and the Native Women's Association addressed their concerns to the Commons committee and outlined the need to continue the practice of vouching. In response to their concerns, Alberta Conservative MP Blake Richards suggested that band offices could provide letters from the band council to attest to the voter's legitimacy. Gladys Christianson, director of human resources for the Lac La Ronge First Nation, replied that for her band that would mean preparing letters for about 4,000 eligible voters.
Instead of hearing her out, Richards interrupted her, drowned out her response, countered with more questions and pressed his views on the subject. It was not a good example of democracy in action.
The (un)-fair elections act is a minefield of tricks. The office of Elections Canada is weakened considerably. Its investigative powers are severely diminished, and it no longer can play an advocacy role.
As well, under the new act, the incumbent politician has the ability to appoint election administrators such as the central poll supervisor, deputy returning officers, poll clerks and registration officers. This could politicize the process, with groups identified as being opposed to the incumbent could be discouraged from voting or intimidated by the rules.
This constitutes a one-two punch at the opposition that may tip the playing field in favour of incumbents.
Opponents of this bill have been treated with contempt and personal attacks. Poilievre has accused Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand of being self-serving, power hungry and wanting to pad his budget. Treasury Board President Tony Clement went so far as to refer to critics as "self-appointed experts" in spite of the fact that some of those expert voices belong to people the Conservatives had previously appointed.
Harper wasn't always in favour of such unilateral legislation. When he was on the opposition benches back in 1996, he rose to speak to a Liberal bill to amend the election act.
"In my view, the procedure of using time allocation for electoral law, doing it quickly and without the consent of the other political parties is the kind of dangerous application of electoral practices that we are more likely to find in Third World countries," he lectured.
What a difference a few years make. Harper is like the white knight who rides out to do battle only to find that his armour has become rusted and tarnished over the years and he is no longer the white knight.