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'Why were we excluded?': Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw members forced to re-register to vote in muni election

Many people living on reserve in Squamish were not on the voter registry for October's election; District and Elections BC say all got to vote, seeking solutions to prevent this from happening again.

Deanna Lewis, also known as Kálkalilh, was perplexed when she went to cast her ballot this October and was told at the polling station she wasn’t on the voter registry.

It was strange that she had to register as if she were a first-time voter, given that she had voted many times before. And it would be hard to miss putting her on the registry this year —  her name was on the ballot as a mayoral candidate.

“When I went there, I was like, ‘What do you mean, I’m not registered? I’m on the ballot,’” said Lewis, a resident of the  Waiwakum reserve. “It was embarrassing.”

The member of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) said at first she thought it may have been because of her change of address. But then she found out many other Nation members on reserve had to re-register.She said she has heard of hundreds of cases where Indigenous people living on reserve were not on the voter registry. Many of them are regular voters who have been in Squamish for a long time.

“This is one of the reasons why I run for things like this, because I’m like, if we don’t insert ourselves in these places of power … we’re never going to see ourselves there,” Lewis said.

When Sisolia (Donna Billy) went to vote in the municipal election this past October, she was also told that her name wasn’t on the election roll.

At the age of 70, the Elder has been a registered voter in town for a very long time. In fact, she had even helped as a local poll worker in previous elections, so this came as a surprise.

This had never happened to her before.

As a result, she couldn’t help but feel more than a bit slighted when she and her friend, Elder Gwen Harry went to vote this election.

“We felt like immigrants that day, and we were not happy,” said Sisolia, who lives on the Stawamus 24 reserve. “We had to re-register just like new people moving into town, and we were really perturbed.”

She said that she knew of many on-reserve Nation members that, for some reason, weren’t on the registry this time, despite the fact they’d been voting for years.

“On Stawamus Reserve, a lot of residents have been here for years, and then all the band members that did go in to vote — they weren’t on there [on the voter registry,]” said Sisolia.

Harry, who is 91, has been on the voter registry since her 20s. She had never encountered any problems before this election.

“My name wasn’t on the registry. Neither were my children,” she said. “I was disappointed and a little embarrassed. Angry, you know?”

Harry, who also lives on Stawamus 24, said she was sent into a separate room to register and vote, which didn’t sit right with her.

“I didn’t think that was fair either,” Harry said, noting that she didn’t like being separated from the rest of the voters.

She’s hoping to get some answers.

“Many of us — my children grew up here,” said Harry. “My husband was born here. You know, we’ve been here for years. Why were we excluded?”

Hereditary Chief Pekultn Siyam (Dale Harry), another resident of Stawamus 24, said he also had to re-register, and being separated into a different room didn’t feel right to him either.

Dale, who is Gwen Harry’s son, said he had to go into a different room and use a different machine.

“It seems like they segregated us,” Dale said. “What in the hell is going on here?”

The District's chief elections officer, Robin Arthurs, said in a written statement that every person who arrived to vote and who was not on the voters list was registered in a room off the primary voting area, dedicated to new registrations.

This allowed for the extra time required to get registered, she said. For efficiency, voters could register and vote within the same room. This applied to any new voters, and any voters who were not on the voters list for any reason.

"We acknowledge how upsetting this is to Squamish Nation members and for that we are deeply sorry and are doing everything we can to get to the bottom of this. We did not intend any disrespect," Arthurs said.

As a hereditary chief, Dale said he gets contacted by people regarding community issues, and he said a number of people told him about this. Some said they didn’t vote as a result.

At the polling station, he said he was asked to provide a letter with his address. But the only piece of identification he brought was his passport. Some of the workers said they weren’t sure if that was valid proof.

Dale said that he was ultimately able to vote, because some poll workers recognized him and vouched for him.

“But can you imagine if they didn’t know some people that walked through that door, and they wanted to vote?” he said. “Some people didn’t even bother walking in that room. Because, you know, they felt frustrated … I got to vote. But there’s some people that are very quiet [whom poll workers] don’t know. And they’re not the ones to go up there and put up a fight or anything like that. They’ll just walk away.”

Dale said he’s angry with the situation and he wants a solution, so it never happens again. He said authorities need to have Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) members working in the electoral system to ensure they don’t get excluded.

District says everyone got to vote

The District of Squamish, which is responsible for administering the vote, said there was a problem with the voter registry they received from the province.

The municipality’s chief election officer,  Robin Arthurs, said it is true some members of the Nation were not on the B.C. provincial voters list provided to the District.

“It became apparent during the election that some streets had not been included on the provincial voters list — and most of these were streets on reserves, though there were also streets on reserves that had been included on the voters list.  We also became aware that there were other members of the community (not Squamish Nation or on reserves) who were previously on the list who were no longer registered,” wrote Arthurs.

“The good news is that this was not a barrier for people to vote, as we were able to ensure that every person who wished to vote was able to. District staff are following up with Elections BC to understand how this happened, though we don’t have a clear answer yet. This situation will also prompt us to cross-check the 2026 voters list with our own GIS records (i.e. a streets list) with the goal to try to identify any discrepancies before voting begins for the next election.”

Ensuring it does not happen again

Elections BC also provided The Squamish Chief an answer regarding the situation.

A written statement from spokesperson Melanie Hull said the provincial organization’s role in local elections is limited.

However, the province does provide local governments with extracts from the provincial voters list for use in their local elections, Hull said. The District of Squamish requested voter lists from Elections BC in January, March and August of 2022.

“As part of the request process, local governments are asked to identify the boundaries of their jurisdiction and any First Nation reserves they administer voting for (even if the First Nation is within municipal boundaries). Including First Nation reserve boundaries in the request is necessary because not all municipalities administer voting for First Nations within their boundaries. The voters lists provided to the District of Squamish included all voters within the boundaries identified by the District,” Hull said.

“On General Voting Day, the District of Squamish determined that their request had not included the Squamish Nation’s boundaries, and, as a result, voters from the Squamish Nation were not on their list. This meant that these voters had to register to vote with the District when they went to cast their ballot at a voting place. Unfortunately, this was discovered too late for Elections BC to provide an updated list to the District. Voters lists can be requested by municipalities far in advance of a general local election in part to allow time for them to check the data to ensure it meets their needs.”

Hull said that Elections BC has followed up with the District of Squamish to review the situation and ensure it does not happen again.

On the other hand, the District maintains that it asked for the correct voter lists.

"We want to reiterate that our request to Elections BC included the areas of the community inclusive of the reserves," said Arthurs. "The request is identical to what was requested in 2018 and we are unclear why Elections BC is claiming that reserves were not requested. We are trying to get to the bottom of this."

The Squamish Nation says it has no role in municipal elections. 

***Updated 11:12 a.m. Nov. 23 with additional comment from the District.

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