The federal NDP is asking Elections Canada to make special accommodations to make sure thousands of evacuees from First Nation communities can vote on Monday, following a crippling snowstorm that has thrown Manitoba into a state of emergency.
After an October snowstorm plunged southern parts of province into darkness because of downed utility poles, people from several First Nations had to leave their homes for hotels in Winnipeg.
Under the Canada Elections Act, the chief electoral officer has the power and discretion to adapt voting procedures in a state of emergency.
With that in mind, the NDP’s lawyer, Meg Atkinson, sent a letter to Elections Canada on Friday, urging the organization to provide special ballots, move polling station closer to the temporary shelters or provide mobile polls for the evacuees.
“We demand that Elections Canada work with stakeholders to identify a better solution for affected electors registered with the Red Cross,” Atkinson wrote in her letter, which was shared with CBC News.
“This is particularly important for the First Nations community which has been historically and systemically disenfranchised.”
About 6,000 evacuees from Manitoba First Nations were registered with the Canadian Red Cross as of Saturday, most of whom are staying in Winnipeg in hotels or in the emergency shelter.
Elections Canada said it was working on ways to help storm victims vote even before the NDP reached out. The non-partisan agency says it’s setting up a polling station at the University of Winnipeg’s Wesley Hall and is providing shuttle services from RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg to the university.
“Over the past few days, Elections Canada has been communicating with political parties about the unprecedented measures we are taking to adapt to the extraordinary events that took place in Manitoba,” said spokesperson Matthew McKenna.
“Our ultimate goal, as always, is to do everything we can so that electors can cast their ballot.”
Evacuees left in dark
Outside a temporary emergency shelter set up in downtown Winnipeg, storm evacuee Adrienne Thompson said Monday’s election is not her primary focus.
“My main concern, my first priority, is my family. My community,” she said.
Thompson and her family have been living in a hotel up until Sunday morning, when they learned their room was no longer available. Now she’s wondering where they’ll sleep.
“Like, where are they? Where are these candidates? How come they’re not coming to see us just to find out how we’re really doing?” she asked.
Sheldon Sumner from Dauphin River First Nation said he was also told to leave his hotel accommodations on Sunday, so he relocated to the emergency shelter. Sumner said he’ll try to cast a vote tomorrow, but worries that many others from his community will have difficulty.
“Some people don’t have IDs. It’s gonna be hard for them to register,” he said.
The Red Cross said the situation is constantly changing. It doesn’t know how many of the thousands of evacuees are still living in Winnipeg and surrounding areas. Spokesperson Jason Small said some have been able to return home as power has been restored.
“We’re also making sure to get out the information to all the evacuees on where to go to vote what they may need when Elections Canada requires,” Small said.
Special ballots for hydro workers
However, Manitoba Hydro has said evacuees could start returning home soon, which the NDP worries could complicate the window for voting.
“To be clear: it is unrealistic to believe that these displaced electors – who have been away from home for approximately a week, many without their own vehicles – could get from the outskirts of Winnipeg to downtown Winnipeg to vote, then get back to their hotels and commence the long trip back to their communities,” wrote Atkinson.
Elections Canada says it’s also prepared to welcome electors at their assigned polling stations in their communities on Monday.
“We have worked with local partners and returning officers to recruit dozens of additional staff in the affected communities and Winnipeg,” said McKenna.
Elections Canada is already making some accommodations to make sure hundreds of Manitoba Hydro workers can vote near job sites Monday while they’re out in the field trying to restore power. The deadline to submit votes by special ballot was Oct. 15, but the organization made an exception for hydro workers.
“Clearly, it is both logistically and operationally possible to provide accessible alternative voting methods on Election Day to ensure people have reasonable access to this important election, notwithstanding this disaster,” said Atkinson.
Elections Canada also said some polling stations in the affected communities could have reduced hours of operation on election day due to power outages. The agency will publish updates at elections.ca.