THE ‘X’ FAC­TOR

Ef­forts un­der­way to get more Win­nipeg­gers — es­pe­cially In­dige­nous peo­ple and new­com­ers — to par­tic­i­pate in elec­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - CAROL SAN­DERS carol.san­ders@freep­ress.mb.ca

Mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions typ­i­cally have a low voter turnout. A va­ri­ety of ef­forts are un­der­way to get more Win­nipeg­gers — es­pe­cially In­dige­nous peo­ple and new­com­ers — to the bal­lot box /

FOR the In­dige­nous teen who grew up in a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold in the North End, it was one of the most in­tim­i­dat­ing things he’d ever done: vote.

“I was kind of ner­vous and scared,” said Kevin Chief, who re­mem­bers vot­ing for the first time at the urg­ing of his high school friend and present-day city coun­cil­lor, Cindy Gil­roy.

“I was raised by my fa­ther in the North End and he never voted,” said Chief. “Cindy asked me to vote in the

1992 elec­tion — her dad Ernie Gil­roy was run­ning for mayor.”

Chief re­mem­bers telling her his ex­cuse not to vote: “What if I go and they don’t let me vote? She said, ‘They have to. You can do this.’ It took a lot of her en­cour­ag­ing me to do it,” said Chief, who later ran provin­cially, win­ning in Point Dou­glas in 2011 and hold­ing a cab­i­net post in the for­mer NDP gov­ern­ment be­fore re­sign­ing in 2017.

Get­ting peo­ple to vote, es­pe­cially those who’ve never voted, is a ma­jor chal­lenge. With In­dige­nous peo­ple and new Cana­di­ans mak­ing up Man­i­toba’s fastest-grow­ing pop­u­la­tions, the need to en­gage them in the po­lit­i­cal process has never been more ur­gent, said Chief, who is the vice-pres­i­dent of the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Man­i­toba.

Winnipeg’s In­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion, cur­rently about 92,000, is ex­pected to grow by four per cent per year — to

114,000 by 2021. Im­mi­grants and first-gen­er­a­tion Cana­di­ans make up 40 per cent of Winnipeg’s pop­u­la­tion but fewer than one-quar­ter of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers are be­lieved to have cast bal­lots in the last mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the non-par­ti­san Got cit­i­zen­ship? Go vote! cam­paign.

“We have to re­move the bar­ri­ers to take full ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­ni­ties,” said Chief. “If peo­ple aren’t en­gag­ing in democ­racy and tak­ing part in elec­tions, we’re miss­ing a huge op­por­tu­nity to get re­sources to the peo­ple who need them.”

At the mu­nic­i­pal level, it’s even more of a chal­lenge to get peo­ple to vote than in provin­cial or fed­eral elec­tions.

“It ab­so­lutely drives me crazy that peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that at the civic level we im­pact their lives the most,” said Winnipeg city Coun. Jan­ice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Nor­bert), who was ac­claimed in the newly cre­ated Waver­ley West ward last month. “We’re the level of gov­ern­ment clos­est to the peo­ple; it’s cliche but its true. The de­ci­sions we make im­pact peo­ple’s lives dra­mat­i­cally.”

Turnout in the 2015 fed­eral elec­tion was 68 per cent. The 2016 provin­cial elec­tion saw 57 per cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers cast bal­lots. In the last mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion in 2014, just 50.2 per cent of Win­nipeg­gers voted. That was higher than in the pre­vi­ous two civic elec­tions, 38 per cent in 2006 and 47.1 per cent in 2010.

“It’s a real puz­zle,” said Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba po­lit­i­cal stud­ies Prof. Royce Koop. Civic gov­ern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for things such as polic­ing, pot­holes and garbage col­lec­tion but fed­eral elec­tions get a higher voter turnout.

“Peo­ple don’t per­ceive the re­sults as im­por­tant.”

Provin­cial and fed­eral elec­tions get more par­tic­i­pa­tion be­cause the party sys­tem makes them more ex­cit­ing and eas­ier to fol­low than mu­nic­i­pal races, he said. “(The par­ties) or­ga­nize con­flict, take po­si­tions, have plat­forms and pro­vide vot­ers with choice,” he said. “When there are no par­ties, we get a mish-mash of can­di­dates, and who knows what their poli­cies are?”

A ma­jor griev­ance or “some­thing re­ally ex­cit­ing” can get more peo­ple to vote in a mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion, but Koop doubts the con­tentious plebiscite ques­tion about whether to re­open Portage and Main to pedes­tri­ans will drive more Win­nipeg­gers to the polls.

“Some peo­ple re­ally want it to open but they fall into the groups that are more likely to vote any­way,” he said.

“Peo­ple pay at­ten­tion to a race that’s com­pet­i­tive and you’ll get a higher turnout than a non-com­pet­i­tive race. If, in the polls, I see (in­cum­bent mayor Brian) Bow­man is way out front, I think my vote isn’t go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence — Bow­man is just go­ing to walk back into power.”

To in­crease voter turnout, Cal­gary has tried drive-up polling sta­tions, and On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have had some suc­cess with on­line vot­ing.

While good ideas, they’re not go­ing to cre­ate any new vot­ers or a real sense of civic en­gage­ment, Chief said.

In 1992 when he voted for the first time, 58 per cent of vot­ers cast a bal­lot, the high­est turnout for a Winnipeg mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion in 25 years. He vividly re­mem­bers his polling sta­tion was in Strath­cona School, which he at­tended as a child.

“I re­mem­ber that it made me feel kind of im­por­tant and proud,” he said. “I was 18 and I could vote. It was that per­sonal con­nec­tion (with Gil­roy) that gave me the con­fi­dence to do it. It came down to hav­ing a friend who said, ‘It’s im­por­tant you do this.’”

That’s the mes­sage Chief is spread­ing now. He’s talk­ing to high school and uni­ver­sity stu­dents, or­ga­ni­za­tions and busi­ness groups about the im­por­tance of voter en­gage­ment.

“We’re in a kind of dan­ger­ous time,” he said. Voter turnout is low and so­cial me­dia is be­ing re­lied upon more and more to con­nect with vot­ers — a strat­egy Chief has lit­tle faith in get­ting out the vote.

“A Face­book friend is very dif­fer­ent than a friend who does some­thing with you,” he said. “Face­book ‘Likes’ don’t turn into votes.”

When he de­cided to run in Point Dou­glas — one of Canada’s low­est-in­come neigh­bour­hoods — the chal­lenge wasn’t to get peo­ple to vote for him, it was to get peo­ple to vote, pe­riod. He asked vet­eran politi­cian Lloyd Ax­wor­thy how can­di­dates got out the vote be­fore the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia.

His an­swer was sim­ple: vol­un­teers. Ax­wor­thy told him de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple was vi­tal and that “ev­ery per­son you en­gage with has a net­work of peo­ple.” That’s how Chief’s cam­paign at­tracted 350 vol­un­teers and re­sulted in 1,177 new vot­ers cast­ing bal­lots in Point Dou­glas in 2011 — a 25 per cent in­crease for the rid­ing.

“The crit­i­cal in­gre­di­ent is you have to make sure peo­ple know they be­long,” he said.

A greeter at the cam­paign of­fice wel­comed ev­ery­one and asked if she could snap a photo and post it on the wall; vol­un­teers were friends and fam­ily and could point to a pic­ture of some­one they knew on the wall. They weren’t just given a job to do, they were asked what they’d like to do, Chief said.

“The peo­ple were get­ting in­volved in a re­la­tion­ship,” he said, adding they helped in­crease turnout by get­ting the word out about what ID is re­quired to vote. They helped Elec­tions Man­i­toba iden­tify where and when to set up ad­vance, mo­bile polling sta­tions at se­niors cen­tres, adult ed­u­ca­tion cen­tres and the In­dian and Metis Friend­ship Cen­tre on bingo game days.

“Ad­vance polls re­ally do make a dif­fer­ence. Have polls in places where peo­ple go,” he said.

By the end of Wed­nes­day — Day 10 of ad­vance polls in this year’s elec­tion — 12,047 vot­ers had cast bal­lots. At the end of Day 10 in 2014, 9,146 vot­ers had par­tic­i­pated in ad­vance polls. In to­tal, 30,619 ad­vance votes were cast.

“Putting more of an em­pha­sis on the peo­ple where there is low voter turnout and telling them what they need to vote, that’s the per­sonal touch that’s needed,” Chief said.

Su­rafel Kuchem, an im­mi­grant from Ethiopia, will vote in his first mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion on Oct. 24.

“The chance to vote in a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Kuchem, who came to Canada as a teen from Ethiopia in 2005. It took him more than a decade to be­come a cit­i­zen and be­come el­i­gi­ble to vote. He worked as a cleaner to put him­self through uni­ver­sity while coach­ing and vol­un­teer­ing at an af­ter-school pro­gram.

Now a mid­dle-school math and science teacher, he’s still busy, run­ning an af­ter-school home­work pro­gram called Peace­ful Vil­lage and help­ing to get out the vote with the Got cit­i­zen­ship? Go vote! cam­paign.

“Civic en­gage­ment is a huge is­sue that needs to be ad­dressed,” he said.

Ab­dikheir Ahmed, one of the founders of the cam­paign, said voter ap­a­thy both­ers him. “It makes me feel very bad,” said Ahmed, a refugee from So­ma­lia who voted for the first time in Canada in 2010.

“A lot of peo­ple I talk to say, ‘What’s the use? I don’t want to vote, what is it go­ing to change for me?’”

For peo­ple from coun­tries that ex­pe­ri­ence bal­lot-box stuff­ing, voter in­tim­i­da­tion or vi­o­lence, or who’ve never had the right to vote, that blasé at­ti­tude to­ward democ­racy is puz­zling.

“Here, their fam­i­lies live in peace but they don’t ac­tu­ally link lead­er­ship and vot­ing with daily life,” said Ahmed, di­rec­tor of Im­mi­gra­tion Part­ner­ship Winnipeg.

Got cit­i­zen­ship? Go vote! is us­ing so­cial me­dia and train­ing ses­sions and held a may­oral fo­rum in the in­ner city on Oct 6. It pro­duced YouTube videos in a num­ber of lan­guages ex­plain­ing why mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions mat­ter, who is el­i­gi­ble to vote and how to cast a bal­lot. Var­i­ous eth­nic com­mu­nity lead­ers are hand­ing out pledge cards for vot­ers to fill out that say where and when they plan to vote, and how they will get to the polls. The goal is to get 5,000 new­com­ers to the polls.

He is on the cam­paign all the time. Re­cently, he was in a ha­lal gro­cery store and a young mom from Morocco who is now a Cana­dian cit­i­zen asked him about the ‘Go vote!’ but­ton on his jacket. Ahmed ex­plained and asked her if she plans to vote. When she said no, he told her that her vote can in­flu­ence who’s on the board mak­ing de­ci­sions about her child’s school and what kind of re­cre­ational fa­cil­i­ties city coun­cil will fund in their neigh­bour­hood.

She changed her mind, he said. Koop said there are many steps gov­ern­ments could take to in­crease turnout, in­clud­ing mak­ing vot­ing manda­tory, con­duct­ing more ad cam­paigns, mak­ing it eas­ier for peo­ple by ad­just­ing ID re­quire­ments, in­creas­ing the num­ber of ad­vance polls and al­low­ing peo­ple to vote on­line.

“In the past, it was thought to be your civic duty,” said Koop, who has pushed for more civics ed­u­ca­tion in Man­i­toba. “Con­vinc­ing peo­ple they have a duty to vote re­quires a gen­er­a­tional shift.”

Koop said a sense of civic duty gets passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. “If your par­ents vote, you’re more likely to vote,” he said.

MIKAELA MACKEN­ZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Af­ter be­com­ing a Cana­dian cit­i­zen, teacher Su­rafel Kuchem will be el­i­gi­ble to vote for the first time, in the Oct. 24 civic elec­tion. He is part of the non-par­ti­san Got cit­i­zen­ship? Go vote! cam­paign to get new­com­ers to vote.

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