Two candidates in Labrador are disappointed that Elections NL has reneged on a commitment to distribute materials in Indigenous languages for voters who need them.
According to the candidates, Bruce Chaulk, the chief electoral officer, had previously committed to having election materials, including ballots, translated into Newfoundland and Labrador's Indigenous languages, which include Inuktitut, Innu-aimun and Mi'kmaw.
"You can't promise one thing, and then ... say you're going to provide accommodation and then withdraw it back at such a late juncture," said Shannon Tobin, the PC candidate running in the central Labrador district of Lake Melville.
The district includes the Innu community of Sheshatshiu. Tobin said residents there found out only recently that translated materials would no longer be provided, purportedly because it wouldn't fit within Elections NL's timeline.
Tobin said they've already seen issues arise from not having support for monolingual Indigenous voters, a difficulty compounded by the shift to mail-in voting that was called after an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus variant was confirmed on the eve of the scheduled Feb. 13 vote.
"It's very important that in this day and age, where we're trying to establish better relationships and better working relationships with our Indigenous groups, that we make sure to provide these services, to make sure that people have access and that all these barriers are taken down," said Tobin.
A case of 'being able to access democracy'
He said that for many Labrador residents, this is not a new issue. According to the PC candidate, he has friends whose first language is an Indigenous language, and they've already seen issues at in-person polling stations where voters need translation services and are relying on a lone scrutineer to provide translated instructions.
"When it comes to an election, we're trying to make sure that everybody's being able to access democracy," said Tobin. "And so making sure that you're able to [vote for] who you think is best there to represent you is a part of our democracy. It should be something that we always try to find accommodations [for] as best we can."
CBC contacted Elections NL for clarification on the decision to not provide translated material.
Communications manager Adrienne Luther said that when the election moved to vote-by-mail, Chaulk sought translation assistance from their jurisdictional partners. However, the timeline for translations would not have met Elections NL's deadline for mailing out voting kits.
Luther said that Elections NL is committed to seeking translation services in Indigenous languages for future elections.
Bruce Chaulk was not available for an interview on this issue.
Northern communities feeling excluded
Despite the claim that Elections NL did seek translation services, Patricia Johnson-Castle, the NDP candidate for Torngat Mountains, doesn't believe any effort was made.
Johnson-Castle, who is active on a number of regional Facebook groups, said that she hasn't seen any attempt by the government to reach out to individuals who could assist in translation.
Without that assistance, Johnson-Castle has taken matters into her own hands, sourcing translations for how to get mail-in ballots in both Inuktitut and Innu-aimon.
"I've been able to source translators in both Nain and Natuashish, so it's a bit of a where-there's-a-will-there's-a-way situation," she said. "So I don't really buy it when Elections NL says that they weren't able to do it, or weren't able to accommodate it.
"When you make an effort, usually people respond to that effort."
CBC News asked the Liberal campaign for its view on the issue.
"As the independent agency responsible for running the provincial election, Elections NL is navigating this unprecedented situation to ensure voters have a safe and accessible way to cast their ballots," the campaign team said in a statement Friday.
"It is our understanding from supporters we connect with that, where needed, Elections NL is doing everything it can to help those who request accommodations with the special ballot process."
Longstanding issues with language barrier
But according to Johnson-Castle, people on the north coast are used to the province not providing support.
"There isn't a history of the province supporting people here — people are kind of used to a status quo that says if you need to fix something, you need to do it yourself. The province isn't going to do it for you," she said.
When it comes to in-person voting, Johnson-Castle said that community support had been alleviating what she said has always been an underlying language barrier issue. Now, with the challenges of mail-in voting, she said that the government needs to fulfil its obligation to provide services.
"I think that this [language barrier] has probably been a problem for a long time, but that because voting has happened in person, people have been able to kind of work around it," said Johnson-Castle. "People who are bilingual can accompany people who are unilingual to the voting booth, [and] oftentimes the people who work at a poll booth tend to be bilingual, and so can help people."
The exclusion of Indigenous voters, Johnson-Castle said, is a sign that the Elections Act needs to be modernized to accommodate voters who have always been there but not necessarily heard.
"The fact that it's so difficult for people who are unilingual Indigenous-language speakers to receive services in their language speaks to the regard that the provincial government has, indeed, for a lot of the Indigenous people here," said Johnson-Castle.
"We have to fight tooth and nail for every service that we get from the provincial government."
Elections NL has set a deadline of Friday, March 12, for special ballot kits to be returned.