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Voting in Nunavut challenging with nine communities without advance polls

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Nearly 5.8 million Canadians voted in advance polls, says Elections Canada, but residents of nine communities in Nunavut will have to wait until Monday to cast their ballots.
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IQALUIT, Nunavut — Nearly 5.8 million Canadians voted in advance polls, says Elections Canada, but residents of nine communities in Nunavut will have to wait until Monday to cast their ballots.

And for those out of town, like Cathy Aitaok from Cambridge Bay, casting a ballot by mail was unreliable because of long delivery times at Canada Post.

"Because the documents need to be mailed to me, I won't be here in time to receive them," said Aitaok, who had to travel to Edmonton a week before the election to see a family member. 

Elections Canada says 16 of Nunavut's 25 communities had advance polling last weekend — one more than in the 2019 federal election.

"I don't think that I will be voting this year. It's definitely not easy," Aitaok said. 

A political-science professor says the voting situation in Nunavut is an example of long-standing unequal access to the ballot box for some Canadians.

"We're starting to see that there are some areas where Elections Canada could have done a little bit more in terms of trying to increase access for Canadians in unusual circumstances," said Stewart Prest of Simon Fraser University.

Elections Canada says 39.6 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2019, the lowest turnout since 2004.

Access to polling stations isn't a new problem, Prest said.

"It's been an ongoing challenge for decades."

The COVID-19 pandemic has also meant more people wanted to vote early to avoid lineups and crowds on election day, Prest said.

Prest said alternative ways of voting should have been considered long before the pandemic hit.

"Everyone who wants to have a voice should be given the opportunity to cast a ballot. I think this is an area where we can’t accept good enough," he said. 

Some voters in the British Columbia provincial election last year cast their ballots by phone, something Prest said could be an option for more isolated places like Nunavut.

"We're just going to need to try to find more alternatives, more ways to try to make voting accessible to all Canadians."

Diane Benson, a spokeswoman for Elections Canada, said between 200 and 300 people are hired to work at polling stations in Nunavut. Poll workers are paid 20 per cent more because of the high cost of living in the North.

Benson said she has heard concerns about mail-in ballots in the territory not being delivered in time.

"We recognize that there are Canada Post service delivery standards up there that may make the deadlines tight," she said. 

Another issue Nunavut voters face is a lack of the Inuktut language on the ballot. Statistics Canada says 65 per cent of the territory's residents speak Inuktut as their mother tongue.

Canada's Elections Act requires the ballot to be in English and French, Benson said. 

"It is very strictly prescribed in law what the ballot must look like and the ballot must say. We have to follow that," said Benson, who added that Elections Canada tries to hire Inuktut speakers to work the polls in Nunavut. 

Nunavut NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq tabled a private member's bill in June to get Inuktut on the federal election ballot, but it was voted down at committee. 

Information cards telling voters where to cast their ballots were distributed in English, French and Inuktut, Benson said. Polling stations will have a list of candidates in Inuktut and an Inuktut-speaking interpreter will be available over the phone.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook-Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press

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