Thank you, Madam Chair and committee members, for the invitation to appear before you today.
The Northwest Territories has 11 official languages: Chipewyan, Cree, English, French, Gwich'in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tł̨ıchǫ. The ability to converse in an indigenous language ranges from under 200 for Inuktitut to over 2,200 for Tł̨ıchǫ. While these numbers may seem low in a national context, it is important to note that, in our smallest communities, most residents speak an indigenous language.
Our governing legislation, the Elections and Plebiscites Act, currently makes no provision for anything other than the candidate's name and photo on the ballot. As the committee may know, there are no political parties represented in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly, and efforts to introduce party politics have, thus far, been unsuccessful.
In 2016, the territorial government introduced amendments to the Vital Statistics Act, to allow for names to be registered using indigenous characters and diacritics, instead of the Roman alphabet. While these amendments have not yet been brought into force, some residents have started reclaiming indigenous names. As one member said, during the debate on the amendments:
...it also sets the stage for self-identity of First Nations people. You know, the irony of our existence in North America and the world stage is that we all have Anglicized names and Christian names. Our culture is not really reflected in our English names. So this provides an opportunity for people to distinguish themselves as First Nations and Indigenous First Nations around the world.
Under our legislation, a nomination form requires a candidate to indicate the given name and surname by which they are commonly known in their community. There is no requirement to present government-issued documentation, and the ballot would reflect the name as stated in the nomination paper. Figure 1 is an example of what our ballot would look like with indigenous names.
The 1992 plebiscite on the boundary between Nunavut and the Northwest Territories had the plebiscite question translated into 10 of the 11 languages, with Cree being the exception, as interpretation could not be provided in the plebiscite time frame. The proclamation and instructions for voters were also produced in 10 languages. Depending on what languages were commonly spoken in the electoral district, the ballot could have up to four languages included on it. Figure 2 has the English, French and Inuktitut ballot that was used in the eastern Arctic electoral districts.
I'll conclude my comments with some of the issues we face in producing materials in official languages. The languages bureau that was used in the 1992 plebiscite no longer exists, so there's no longer a one-stop shop to have materials produced into all official languages. We are reliant upon individual contractors who may not have the time to quickly turn around materials. The cost to translate materials can also be significantly different, depending on the contractor's rates. There may be considerable variation in terminology between dialects of the same language, so not all speakers may understand the materials produced in that official language. Figure 3 includes examples from three dialects of North Slavey from the Sahtu region, all translating the word “vote”.
Finally, care must be taken to ensure that proper orthographic tools are installed on computers to support indigenous fonts. The default settings in word processors can present indigenous fonts using incorrect diacritical marks. Figure 4 has some examples of what can happen when using default settings when opening a document.
I would be pleased to respond to any questions the committee may have. Thank you, Madam Chair.
: Qujannamiik Iksivautaq.
Thank you, Madam Chair and committee members, for the invitation to appear before you as part of the study on the inclusion of indigenous languages on election ballots.
I am honoured to share with you some of the work that my office does in promoting and advancing Inuktut in Nunavut’s democracy, not only as an obligation under the Nunavut Elections Act, but simply because Nunavummiut rely on us for information in their own languages.
An important tool in the voting process are the ballots upon which we express our democratic choice. Our ballots include candidates' names in any of Nunavut’s official languages, French, English and Inuktut, which we've heard from some of the previous speakers include Inuktitut, which is written in syllabics, and Inuinnaqtun, which is written in roman orthography, the common alphabet that we use in English and French.
Inuktut names are personal and deeply rooted in Inuit customs and culture. We rely on candidates for the spelling and transliteration of their names. These are provided to our office during the declaration period and are included on the ballot.
Fortunately, my office does have the capacity in-house to ensure that each name written in Inuktitut syllabics accurately depicts the candidate’s choice. This capacity is also necessary to decipher the write-in ballots, to ensure that the voter’s choice—written in any official language, including syllabics—is accurately recorded. I have provided the committee with a few examples that depict our multi-language ballots.
Koana. I welcome any questions you have.
. Thank you, and good morning.
My name is Samantha Mack. I am Unangax̂, from King Cove, Alaska. I come to this work in language access from a previous background in academics, focusing on the self-determination of indigenous peoples. This work is very important to me.
If you don't already know, Alaska is currently undergoing the implementation of ranked-choice voting for the first time in our voting process. As such, my department has recently launched a vast educational campaign, which is being carried out in nine Alaska native languages, in addition to Spanish, English and Tagalog .
For us, the inclusion of indigenous languages in the elections process very much does not end with simple inclusion in the ballot, but is all-encompassing, including items like outreach advertising and all public communications from the division of elections. We also utilize a panel model wherein multiple speakers of each indigenous language meet in a panel to translate together. We feel that this is a best practice in terms of indigenous translations, and it works out quite well for us in regard to accuracy and things like that.
Much like Alaska, Canada's role in the colonization of its indigenous peoples and the ongoing impacts of that mean that the inclusion of indigenous languages in the electoral process is a really important first step. I look forward to this discussion.
Thank you for inviting me.
Thanks, Madam Chair. I'll split my time with my honourable colleague, Mr. Fergus.
Let me start by thanking the witnesses for being here. I really appreciate your testimony today.
For me, what we heard from Elections Canada during this study in the initial meeting was a kind of one-size-fits-all approach. At least, I took from some of the testimony we heard that perhaps there needed to be a solution that could work for every jurisdiction if Elections Canada were to implement a solution on this important topic.
I think that assumption got challenged in the last panel of last week, when we heard from individuals from Nunavut that indigenous languages being included on ballots was really important to them. In terms of other jurisdictions, it wasn't necessarily the top priority for other indigenous speakers. That was interesting for me to note. It challenged a couple of assumptions there.
Perhaps I'll go to Mr. Dunbar first, because the Northwest Territories has many indigenous languages.
Do you see an approach that really recognizes the regional differences of indigenous languages spoken in those areas? What would you advise Elections Canada to do in terms of being able to accommodate as many indigenous languages as possible? I know it's a tough question, but I'd be interested in hearing your perspective on that.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
There are probably two comments that I'll make on that.
First, we were one of the first jurisdictions—if not the first—to include the candidate's photo on the ballot. There were numerous reasons for why that first took place about 20 years ago. In part, it was to ensure that electors who may not have full literacy, or who may be able to speak indigenous languages but not to read them, would be able to identify the candidate by sight. That is one of the actions that Elections NWT took—I believe it was for the 2003 general election—to ensure the ballots would be more accessible to all electors.
The other action is that the returning officers in each electoral district will arrange, if there is a need for it, for interpreters to be available at each polling place. Because we have fairly small communities, we have one polling place per community, so there's a need for one interpreter in each community. In the communities where you have multiple languages spoken, we do make efforts to have interpreters for each language, but obviously that is not always possible. I don't think I've fully answered your question, but that is the best effort we make at the moment.
Thank you, Madam Chair. That's very kind of you.
I read what the witnesses from the last two committee meetings had to say, and that helped clue me in for today's discussion.
I appreciate the useful and specific answers the witnesses have provided in regard to organizing an election and making decisions about how candidates' names appear on election ballots.
I would nevertheless like to hear more from them on the proposal being studied by the committee.
To my mind, we need to determine how we can be inclusive of indigenous peoples—as part of the truth and reconciliation process—in a realistic and achievable way that aligns with the values of democracy, of course.
I believe it was Mr. Dunbar who said that, 20 years ago now, a recommendation had been made to include candidates' photos on the ballot to ensure that all voters, in Quebec and in Canada, who could not read their mother tongue or who were not literate would know who the candidates were. The issues the committee members discussed at the previous meetings may have pertained to omissions, errors and such.
I want to use the five minutes I have left to hear what each of the witnesses has to say on the subject.
Mr. Dunbar, what is the first step we should take to ensure that our recommendations reflect our desire to include indigenous languages on election ballots as part of the truth and reconciliation process?
I'm an instrument of my politicians. My work is not something that I make up. They meet, like you, and they tell me how they'd like to see my office proceed, when it comes to running elections.
If you're asking for my personal views on reconciliation, and how it would work with Elections Canada and indigenous languages, I can only tell you how my office does it, and from the examples, everything that comes out of my office is 100% in all four languages.
I will agree with my colleague, Mr. Dunbar. It's very important for people to be able to express their names publicly, and how they want them to be written, transliterated, and said. During Project Surname in Nunavut, everyone was given either English names or anglicized names. Many people still don't recognize their name, even though on paper that's their name. Typically, on a ballot, their name would be written in anglicized words, or they would be provided a surname from the government at the time.
Allowing people to write their name however they want, many elders will put their Inuktitut syllabic names without finals. It would be like writing in English without vowels. We accept that, because that's how they want to write their names.
In essence that's what—
Another point in that regard is that you mentioned your election is 35 days long, similar to a minimum of 36 days for a federal election. It's comparable. However, your nominations need to be in between days one and five, whereas in the federal election, it's up to 21 days prior to an election. It seems there's a discrepancy in Nunavut with the requirement for nomination forms to be in, compared to the federal election. Perhaps that could be something that we look at with the Chief Electoral Officer, to see if he requires additional time to get those names of the candidates translated, and so on and so forth. Maybe that's something we need to look into.
My next question is for Mr. Dunbar.
You also mentioned—through you, Madam Chair—that the “vote here” signs for a polling place were in appropriate languages in the specific districts, and that posters about what kind of ID is required were already translated. My question is similar to the one I posed to Mr. Fredlund.
Is there an opportunity for collaboration between the federal government—the CEO of Elections Canada—and you, to make sure that there are some synergies in translation?
That was very fruitful and very exciting.
On behalf of PROC committee members, I would like to thank our witnesses for joining us today, and the insights you provided. This is a very invigorating conversation.
If something comes to your minds later, do not hesitate to write to our committee. I can assure you that members will appreciate any insights or intel that you can provide from your vast experience.
I hope that you have a good rest of the day, and we look forward to continuing this important work. Thank you.
The Chair: We are going to continue our study on indigenous languages on ballots. Our second panel will include the MP for Nunavut, Ms. Lori Idlout. Welcome to our committee.
This session will start with opening comments from you. We look forward to hearing from you.
We will go through one round of questions from each of the parties, and we will ensure that the Conservative Party has extra time.
Mr. Vis, I'll start with you, and if you want to share some of that time with anyone else, you're welcome to. Then we'll move to the Liberals, followed by the Bloc and then completing with the NDP.
Ms. Idlout, welcome to PROC committee.
[Member spoke in Inuktitut, interpreted as follows
Thank you for inviting me to speak as a witness. I have enjoyed listening to other witnesses regarding this important issue.
As an Inuk, I have always known that language and culture are intimately connected, but I have been intrigued by this system's attempt to isolate language in the context of voting.
I believe the attempt to separate language and culture is another indication of the impacts of colonialism. While initially voter turnout may have been high, voter turnouts declined, and remained low for generations.
The president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Aluki Kotierk, pointed out that in the last federal election, the voter turnout in Nunavut was only about 34%. Indeed, the voter turnout in Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.'s election was approximately 17.5%.
I must share that Nunavut has shown that elections in Inuktitut, along with English and French, can and do work.
Procedurally, there is a precedent, but as I pointed out, ensuring indigenous voting by providing indigenous languages is not sufficient in and of itself. Voters are greeted at the polling station by an Elections Canada employee who speaks English or French. The elder may not understand what the employee is saying, so the elder is usually assisted by the kindness of someone else.
I will speak to what I have experienced, and seen in Nunavut. Many Nunavummiut voters enjoy the freedom of being able to vote in their mother tongue during a territorial election, or during a designated Inuit organization election. This is their right.
With the exception of the pilot project in the 2021 federal election, this is not a norm. The ballots had roughly transliterated Inuktitut names, and phonetically spelled party names in syllabics in the last federal election. This is not a norm.
According to the 2021 census, the population of Nunavut is 36,858, of whom 85% are Inuit. There are 25 Nunavut communities. Each community and region has its own struggles, and experiences when voting. It is imperative to understand that these are complex issues without simple solutions.
One specific example is the consequence of medical travel. Hundreds of Nunavummiut are forced to travel to Iqaluit or the south for medical services and treatments. In Iqaluit, those medical travellers wanted to exercise their right to vote in 2021. However, they were turned away because they were not residents of Iqaluit though they were residents of Nunavut. Therefore, they were denied their fundamental right to vote. Through the assistance of my campaign team, some were able to vote, but many were turned away. This is an example of how Nunavummiut must constantly fight to exercise their basic rights. Nunavummiut should not have to lose their right to vote because they are on medical travel.
I will summarize my comments regarding staffing. There are many unilingual Inuktitut speakers, especially Inuit elders. As a unilingual speaker on election day, an elder must have a proper ID. They are greeted at the polling station by an Elections Canada employee who speaks English or French. The elder may not understand what the employee is saying, so that elder is either assisted by the kindness of someone else or goes to the polling station not knowing what to do. With the exception of the pilot project described earlier by Elections Canada, the ballot is in English or French. Most elders cannot read English or French.
During my campaign, when it became evident that the ballots would not have Inuktitut, I had to describe to people that my name was the one in the middle, between two other candidates. This is not acceptable in a modern Canada. This is not reconciliation.
Another example involves the complaints process. Often when complaints are being made to the chief returning officer, if interpretation or translation is not provided, then a unilingual elder will have to depend on someone else to file the complaint. Sometimes it is not worth filing a complaint, because the person receiving the complaint literally does not speak the same language.
Prior to colonialism, first nations, Métis and Inuit had their own ways of identifying elders. Inuit in smaller camps based leadership on exemplary skills of hunters, sawmen or seamstresses. Inuit still have local leaders who are unique to our culture and way of life.
I learned, since my election, about the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en. The chiefs in the territory within British Columbia are not elected as are those in the colonial system created as the Indian bands. The hereditary chiefs will have authority over the use of their lands, for the most part. I am sure we have all heard about the infringement of their rights and about the pipeline going through their territory without proper consent.
We must learn how best to respect indigenous governance to ensure Canada lives up to its commitments to reconciliation.
As a witness in this committee, I want to include the following recommendations for specific and immediate action.
One, learn from Elections Nunavut, which has extensive experience running elections in four official languages.
Two, hire full-time indigenous interpreter-translators within Elections Canada for those indigenous communities that need them. This will help build the necessary expertise and corporate knowledge for the department regarding indigenous languages for future elections.
Three, streamline the complaints process for unilingual indigenous people to voice their concerns. This needs to be made very clear and be improved.
Four, conduct a further study on indigenous governance within Canada's democracy as another form of reconciliation.
Finally, number five, ensure that the federal Government of Canada respects indigenous cultures in order to build the trust that is necessary for real reconciliation.
Thank you for allowing me this time.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Thank you, Ms. Idlout for your testimony, and also for your initiative.
I'm going to go back to a question that I asked of the commissioner for the Northwest Territories and also to the testimony that was provided to us from the CEO of Elections Canada.
Elections Canada seems to have a one-size-fits-all perspective. I always like to say that we're the sum of our experiences. Some people would say that we're the victims of our experiences.
It would appear that because we have two colonial official languages that exist across Canada, the effort is made to always provide, regardless of where you are in the country, fully accessible material in both languages. That's a good thing.
What I was hearing from our testimony in the first panel today, and I think what I'm hearing from you, especially in your conversation with Mr. Vis, is that you're looking for recognition and a respect to include indigenous languages on material, including the ballot, where it's appropriate. If you noticed, I didn't use the word “threshold”. I'm not looking to some...kick in a percentage and all of a sudden it's there, but where it's appropriate.
Is my understanding of what you're seeking correct? If not, please—
The year 1995 marked a very important time in my life. At the age of 18, I felt the need to learn English in order to be taken more seriously in Quebec and Canada. I went to Hawaii to learn English. The experience of the indigenous community in Hawaii is completely different from the experience here. There, people shared a sense of unity, and I even learned Hawaiian in high school. For me, it was part of the culture.
We have two official languages in Canada, but now I realize that things are often tough as a parliamentarian, even in French. I won't call it contempt, but it is still clear today that our differences lead to breakdowns in communication. That is why I am here, as a member of the Bloc Québécois. I can certainly appreciate the steps that have to be taken.
Much of what the witnesses said focused on the measures that could be taken in advance to recognize the various languages—16, in this case—to help revitalize those cultures and to foster a sense of pride among those speakers.
A few days ago, I went to La Conception, in my riding of Laurentides—Labelle. I visited the site of a future indigenous cultural centre called Kina8at, which brings cultures together and helps people discover them to encourage an appreciation of our differences.
Ms. Idlout, I'd like to hear your comments on the outcome of this process.
Do you think we will have taken a significant step down the path of truth and reconciliation with this study?
As always, all my questions will go through the chair.
Ms. Idlout, I want to thank you for your work here and for the words you shared with us today. I really admire it. The conversation we're having today is really important.
I'm really moved by the story you told in your testimony about literally having to tell your constituents, “My name is the one in the middle.” That really is a good reminder of how challenging it can be to feel like you even have the right to vote, if all you know when you walk in is that the middle name and those symbols mean that person. I also found it really interesting in the testimony the idea of having photos beside the names.
I would like to ask you a question. The first part of the question is, what do you think about the photos by the name? Does that also assist people who have challenges?
Also, how are we going to see the indigenous population start to vote more? I represent over 20 first nations communities. The voter turnout locally in their own nations is very high, around 90%. They get out and they vote, but when it comes to the federal election, it's a lot lower.
What do you think impedes indigenous voters from casting their vote, and what do you think can be done to increase voter turnout among those communities?
It's a great question. Thank you.
For sure it's about learning to understand just how deep the impacts of colonialism have been, especially when it comes to the ballot. As I was mentioning, first nations, Métis and Inuit have been forced away from their world views. When Elections Canada is hiring staff, those staff have to be trauma informed. If they're not trauma informed, then their behaviour is going to seem very colonial. They are so used to just ordering people around and saying, “Do this,” which are the very symbols of colonial behaviours towards first nations, Métis and Inuit.
I think there might be a lack of interest in practising this right to vote when you're voting for people who will ultimately be part of that system. As I said earlier, part of this ongoing conversation we need to have is about making reconciliation real. What are some tangible things we can do that show we are trying to do better for first nations, Métis and Inuit?
I can see why the voter turnout would be a lot higher for first nations because they know that those first nations groups are going to fight for their rights. To have someone represent you who you know will fight for your rights is someone you know you'll want.
To the second part of that question, I think we have to do a better job as parliamentarians in how we do our work. One thing I'm always shocked by when I go back to my riding is, first, how thankful my constituents are that I visited their communities but also how uninformed they are of the services that are available to them within their communities.
There still doesn't tend to be a lot of understanding of what Service Canada does or what Elections Canada can do. I think that as parliamentarians we all can do a better job of informing our constituents of the services that they should be allowed to have, the services that they can expect to have from the Government of Canada, and making sure that legislation, policies and programs are better reflective of the cultural needs of first nations, Métis and Inuit.
Ms. Idlout, on behalf of PROC committee members I would like to thank you for your testimony and your time with us today. As I say to everyone, you're always welcome to send us more information, which we will definitely consider as we continue with this report. You've been a fabulous addition. Thank you for your time.
Voices: Hear, hear!
The Chair: Kudos to all committee members for the informative questions.
I will just remind committee members that on Thursday we will meet again. In the first hour we will have Jean-François Daoust, assistant professor, University of Edinburgh; Dwight Newman, professor of law and Canada research chair in indigenous rights in constitutional and international law, University of Saskatchewan; Allison Harell, professor, political science department, Université du Québec à Montréal.
For the second panel, we'll have the Institut Tshakapesh, with Marjolaine Tshernish, general manager; as well as First Nations Education Council, Denis Gros-Louis, who's the director general.
We look forward to continuing this study. With that, I wish everyone a really good day. We'll see you on Thursday.
The meeting is adjourned.