'It's quite an undertaking': Voting in the North poll

In Canada’s far-North fly-in communities, voting day involves a whole other level of preparation and dedication

A worker at a polling station in Toronto's  Beaches -East York  riding picks out a poster as they prepare for voters to cast their ballots in the Federal Election on Monday May 2, 2011. (Chris Young/CP)

(Chris Young/CP)

A ballot can go a long way. More than 1,600 km, in the case of the ballots going to and from Fort Severn, the most northern community in Ontario. While electoral officers in cities often work just blocks away from their polling stations, other officers must send voting supplies to the most remote neighbourhoods in the country.

“They’re not forgotten,” says Paul Duggan, the Elections Canada returning officer in Kenora, Ont. “We don’t leave the North alone.” Duggan’s office manages the voting in the Ontario region between the border of Manitoba and Timmins–James Bay, including 23 fly-in First Nations reserves such as Fort Severn (population 334, as of 2011).

Since it would be too expensive to fly an officer to each community, Duggan sent out polling kits last week, which were delivered by plane with the other mail destined for the communities. Each kit consists of a ballot box packed with ballots, a polling book, a screen to create a booth, posters to publicize the election and other supplies. The package is sealed. “We have heavy-duty vinyl bags with a security lock to transport things,” says Duggan.

The kit also includes a USB stick, loaded with a training video for the locals who have been hired to run the polling station. For Fort Severn, those locals are Elaine Duncan, hired as a deputy returning officer, and Kristen Bluecoat, serving as a clerk. “I wanted to do this for my community,” says Duncan. “They were looking for someone, and my father [deputy chief of the reserve] asked me if I’d be interested in running it. I’m very interested in voting. I want to make sure everyone knows to vote,” she says, recognizing that voter turnout on Aboriginal reserves was just 45 per cent in the last federal election. Duncan then asked her friend, Bluecoat, to be the clerk.

The duo had a week to read the procedures and watch the training video. They’ve delivered special ballots to elders who aren’t mobile, translating the instructions into Cree or Ojibway and asking them to vote for one of the four candidates: Conservative Greg Rickford (incumbent), Liberal Bob Nault, NDP Howard Hampton or Green candidate Ember McKillop.

Duncan and Bluecoat have also put up posters in public spaces. “The store, the school, anywhere there’s traffic,” says Duncan. Later this week, one of Duggan’s employees in Kenora will call them to review the procedures. After the election, Duncan and Bluecoat will count the ballots and phone in their results, then send the ballots back to Kenora for validation. “They self-train for the first part, then do phone training,” says Duggan. “It’s the only feasible way. We can’t physically come up, and they can’t come down.”

Although Elections Canada announced plans in 2009 to test electronic voting before this election, the plans were dropped in 2013 due to budget cuts. Instead, the procedure for Fort Severn continues to apply to Canada’s fly-in communities, including Grise Fiord, Nunavut, the most northern civilian community in Canada. “It’s a tedious, onerous task, but no community is being left out,” says Isaac Omole, returning officer for Nunavut. Omole and his staff had to train locals and coordinate deliveries or run polling stations themselves in 25 communities in three time zones. “Even when I get home in the middle of the night, I still continue to return emails and calls,” he says. “It’s been very, very busy, but we are making it.”

For the remote areas in Ontario that are accessible by car, officers will drive to oversee voting themselves on Oct. 19. For mining sites and oil rigs, employers or employees must request special ballots be delivered to them by express mail, which arrive by plane or helicopter. In Duggan’s words, “it’s quite an undertaking.”