OTTAWA - Gladys Christiansen had a question of her own for the Conservative government as she testified Thursday before a parliamentary committee studying controversial election law changes.
"The government continually stresses the accountability of First Nations," Christiansen, the human resources director for Saskatchewan's Lac La Ronge Indian Band, told MPs.
"What about the government's accountability to Canadians?"
Christiansen was one of three First Nations representatives and among five witnesses in all Thursday, who uniformly criticized a massive rewrite of Canada's election rules because of the difficulties it will present for some electors.
Bill C-24, dubbed the Fair Elections Act by the government, has produced a cavalcade of criticism on a variety of fronts, but two measures in particular have garnered almost universal condemnation from experts.
The bill proposes to eliminate the practice of vouching, in which a properly identified voter can vouch for the identity of someone lacking complete ID. At the same time, the bill will end the limited use of voter information cards, issued by Elections Canada, as a proof of residency.
It would also severely limit Elections Canada's ability to communicate with people, including through voter outreach programs.
Peter Dinsdale, acting CEO of the Assembly of First Nations, testified the changes will make it harder for aboriginals to vote and are a step backward.
The AFN has been working with Elections Canada on programs specifically targeted at aboriginal youth, said Dinsdale, but provisions in C-23 will end such collaborations.
Pierre Poilievre, the minister responsible for the bill, has repeatedly stressed it is reasonable to expect people to properly identify themselves before they vote. He cites 39 different pieces of identification that can be used.
Christiansen, a status Indian who has lived most of her life on reserve, has a different perspective.
"I have reviewed that list and unlike Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, who has numerous pieces of identification in his wallet, most First Nations people do not have any of those — much less one that contains an address," she said.
Status cards, for instance, are government-issued photo ID but have no address on them. The cards expire and can take years to renew, the committee was told.
She said the reality on reserve is high unemployment and crowded housing, often with three or four generations under a single roof, which is the way she grew up.
"When a person is living on $320 a month, how can that person be expected have credit cards and bank accounts and vehicles and mortgages and residential leases and insurance policies?" said Christiansen.
Teresa Edwards, a Mi'kmaq who serves as legal counsel for the Native Women's Association of Canada, called out the Conservative majority on the committee after almost two hours of circling the documentation issue.
"It shows the amount of privilege that's in this room that people have no comprehension of how difficult it could be for aboriginal people to obtain identification," said Edwards.
Tom Lukiwski, Poilievre's parliamentary secretary, pointed out to Christiansen that aboriginals who lack residence ID can get a letter of attestation from their band administration.
"Would that alleviate a lot of the problems that you identified?" asked the Conservative MP.
Christiansen responded that Lac La Ronge has more than 6,000 band members on and off reserve who are of voting age.
"So who in the band administration is going to be writing out these letters to say you can go vote?" she asked Lukiwski.
The current and former chief electoral officers of Elections Canada say there is no evidence of voter fraud in the vouching process, as does Harry Neufeld, the former B.C. elections officer whose report on voting irregularities in the 2011 election has been used as the backstop for the Conservative reforms.
"Why are we fixing something that's not broken?" Edwards asked the MPs as two hours of testimony wrapped up Thursday.
"This will only further put up barriers for aboriginal people. It can't help but make someone wonder, Is that the intent? Is this really democracy or is the intent to actually limit aboriginal voting in the next election?"
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version used an incorrect term to describe 'voter information cards.'
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