Cree and Inuit voters concerned with Quebec electoral system that shuts them out

Quebec woke up after the October 3 provincial election to find a resounding endorsement of the status quo. While François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) coasted to its second majority with 90 of 125 seats, the story behind the headlines had many analysts calling for election reform.

The CAQ won 72% of seats with only 41% of the popular vote, while four other parties garnered similar size votes with wildly different results. The Liberals remained official opposition with 21 seats despite fewer votes than the Parti Québécois (3 seats) and Québec Solidaire (11 seats), which had 15.4% of the popular vote compared to the Liberals’ 14.4%. The Conservatives, less than two percentage points behind the Liberals, got no seats.

While the CAQ dominated most of the province, it took only two of 27 seats on the islad of Montreal, where voters largely rejected its legislation impacting religious and linguistic minorities. In the Duplessis riding, Kateri Champagne Jourdain, an Innu woman originally from Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, made history as the first Indigenous woman to become a Member of the National Assembly.

CAQ MNA Denis Lamothe retained his seat in the Ungava riding, which once again had the lowest voter turnout in the province. He told the Nation his record was good, referencing school construction projects in Wemindji and Chisasibi, new housing for health workers and infrastructure in Chibougamau.

One of Lamothe’s top priorities for his next mandate is improving mobile phone coverage, particularly in isolated areas of the Billy Diamond Highway. He blamed the pandemic for travelling little throughout the region and defended his statement regarding the suspension of the moose sports hunt in Zone 17, which was criticized by Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty for his lack of consultation.

“I respect what Mrs. Mandy Gull said but at the end we were June 30, hunters were waiting,” said Lamothe. “I just mentioned the decision that was taken – hunters were calling us [saying] we have to take vacation. Since elected, we haven’t had communication yet but I’m planning to travel at the end of the month to meet (Cree) leaders. I strongly believe in good communication.”

Lamothe received 36.3% of the 8,633 votes cast out of over 29,000 eligible voters, for a more decisive victory than in 2018 when he won by just 46 votes after a recount. He was followed by Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash (Québec Solidaire) with 24.2% and Tunu Napartuk (Liberal) with 18.2%.

The results renewed calls for better representation of Indigenous and northern voters, which Napartuk suggested could be accomplished by creating separate ridings in Nunavik and Eeyou Istchee. Both regions have at least the same population as the Magdalen Islands, which has its own riding.

“One of the purposes of ridings is to properly represent the voters, to have a voice for a specific group of people at the National Assembly,” asserted Napartuk. “[Nunavik] would have the same argument as similar ridings – I’d say it’s even more critical for Eeyou Istchee as it has a much bigger population than we have.”

The two-time mayor of Kuujjuaq believed that Nunavik Inuk and Cree Eeyou voices were not considered in the wider campaign and was disappointed that the CAQ seemed only concerned with Quebec’s white francophone majority. During the campaign, Legault suggested increasing immigration would be “suicidal” and many anglophones felt targeted by his updated language law.

“The CAQ machine worked very well on its niche voters,” Napartuk told the Nation. “It provided a message they need to look after themselves and did not even try to convince other groups of society or cultures. The entire Native voice and the challenges and realities we have in the whole province was a non-issue.”

While some have suggested that neither Indigenous candidate was elected because the Indigenous vote in Ungava was split, Napartuk responded that the more choices there are, the better. He maintained that low voter turnout was the bigger obstacle to electing an Indigenous candidate and often says that the young populations aged 18 to 35 in Nunavik and Eeyou Istchee “can literally decide who gets voted in.”

However, many who did come out to vote reported being turned away when their names weren’t on the voter list. Unlike in federal elections, people cannot be added on election day by swearing an oath, producing two pieces of identification and proof of address.

“In most of our 14 Nunavik communities, there were complaints about names not being on the list,” confirmed Napartuk. “Elections Quebec needs to do much better preparation to ensure every voter understands the process, not just a couple of weeks before the election date.”

With even people who showed up for advance polling and took necessary steps unable to vote, Napartuk said there needs to be someone from the region to coordinate and make last-minute adjustments in consideration of the region’s isolation and remoteness.

According to Elections Quebec, it is the responsibility of the voter to ensure their information is correct and they are on the voter list. A spokesperson said they made voting and revision information available in eight Indigenous languages, including Cree and Inuktitut. There was advance voting by mail in remote regions and revision teams were sent to 23 Indigenous communities during the last week of September.

In Eeyou Istchee, even some people who received their voter card in the mail with their correct name and address couldn’t vote. Some who had lived for many years at the same address and voted provincially without incident in the past either didn’t receive voting cards in the mail or received cards without their name on it.

“This is the first time we couldn’t vote,” Chisasibi’s Gracie Chiskamish Sealhunter told the CBC. “I always vote. We didn’t have problems before.”

“Many Crees and Inuit were denied voting at the polls, even if they were previously on the provincial list,” tweeted Labrecque-Saganash. “Since the first day of campaign I’ve tried to raise awareness on the challenges to access democracy in Nunavik and Eeyou Istchee, but no one listened.”

Waswanipi’s Labrecque-Saganash mobilized many voters with her passionate advocacy for Northern issues like improving infrastructure, accessible housing and healthcare reform. The Cree Nation Government thanked her “for a very courageous first run that had us on the edge of our seats all evening.”

“Mista mikwetc for daring and hoping to make a difference by bringing our voice to the National Assembly,” the CNG tweeted. “We hope that your campaign inspired others to contribute to shaping the political and social landscape of Eeyou Istchee.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation