On April 4, 2016, voters in Saskatchewan, Canada went to the polls to elect 61 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) to represent their constituencies on the provincial level. Elections SK, the election management body (EMB) for the province, undertook several efforts to reduce barriers to the vote for the indigenous community, including the introduction of new polling stations on First Nations reserves, the publication of a Voting Guide for First Nations of Saskatchewan Community Leaders, and an enumeration plan to ensure accurate voter lists. Individual members of the 74 First Nations in the province comprise approximately 15 percent of the total population, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) was invited by Elections SK to observe voting in new polling stations on First Nations reserves outside of Regina, the province’s capital, and La Ronge, a community in central Saskatchewan.
IFES’ approach to assessing First Nations voting seeks to evaluate the extent to which the electoral process adheres to international law (including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights) as well as to the principles enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Addressing both individual and collective rights, UNDRIP asserts indigenous peoples' rights to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions. States are asked to support these rights in a manner consistent with international human rights law and the just and most compelling requirements of a democratic society. In the area of elections, contradictions between these objectives often can and do occur. To better inform the resulting policy discussion, IFES facilitates international research and dialogue on challenges and innovation happening at the juncture of elections and the rights of indigenous peoples. At a national level, IFES assists countries to meet UNDRIP standards by holding inclusive national and local-level elections that respect language and traditional political institutions and practices. IFES works with state officials and indigenous stakeholders to incorporate the rights of indigenous peoples into each stage of the electoral cycle, from the development of election law to the adjudication of election disputes.
The IFES team visited nine polling stations (seven on First Nations reserves and two in constituencies with First Nations voters) during voting and counting hours, and observed tabulation at a constituency-level Returning Office. Interlocutors included First Nations polling officials, other Band members, Elections Saskatchewan administrators, and the Chief of the Lac La Ronge First Nation, the largest Band in the province. The team found that Elections SK’s efforts to reduce barriers at the polls for First Nations members who may lack government-issued identification were generally successful. For example, official letters of authorization were included on Elections SK’s list of acceptable forms of identification, and were maintained at each polling station to facilitate voter identify checks. These letters were signed by the Chiefs of each Band and established the identity of Band members. Another important inclusion effort was the establishment of polling stations in community spaces on First Nations reserves, many for the first time in provincial-level elections (155 polling stations in 2016 vs. 100 in 2011). Interlocutors noted that the polling locations on First Nations land – in many cases more convenient for voters than polling places in nearby towns – were important to increasing voter turnout, especially for young and first-time voters.
In addition to elections run by Elections SK and Elections Canada (the national-level EMB), First Nations voters may participate in locally-administered elections for Band Chiefs and Councilors. The regulatory framework for these elections can vary, depending on First Nation treaty status and governing preferences. In some cases, First Nations elections are held every two years under the administrative framework of the Indian Act; other First Nations adopt their own election codes that allow for variability in term duration and procedures for nominating and electing office-holders. Further study is needed of these elections – as well as community elections held by indigenous groups around the globe – to understand how they enable both individual political rights and communal rights to self-determination.