The Impact of Digital Technology on First Nations Participation and Governance


Digital interest and the participation puzzle

There is growing interest among local governments to adopt digital technologies for elections, community consultation and decision-making. Alongside Canadian municipalities First Nations communities appear to be one of the early adopters of such technologies. These communities are optimistic about the promise of digital technology as a means of overcoming physical barriers to participation in rural northern communities and improving the inclusiveness of local government. First Nation leaders are also interested in the capacity these technologies offer for community consultation of off-reserve members who may not have the same access to voting as those living on-reserve.

To put the participation of First Nation communities in perspective, Indigenous citizens participate in federal and provincial elections at levels that are among the lowest of any socio-demographic group in Canada. The underlying causes of this, however ? and the best way to remedy this trend ? remain a persistent puzzle. Governments, election agencies, administrators at all levels, and First Nations leaders are concerned with this issue and are interested in the potential of digital technology, specifically Internet voting, to improve First Nations participation in elections, other votes, and consultations.

At the First Nations community level participation rates range from below 10 percent to around the 90 percent level, depending on the community and the nature of the election or vote. This means that for some communities, participation at all levels of government is a problem, while for others residents are engaged in community votes but often disconnected from provincial and federal elections. Regular and vibrant participation in these communities through elections, other votes, and consultations is important for legitimacy of band council, representation and inclusion, and building community capacity.

What makes the precarious participation situation in many communities an even greater concern is the lack of involvement among youth (aged 18-30). While many young people across Canada are not inclined to participate often in elections, the lack of participation among First Nations youth imparts worry since they are the fastest growing demographic in Canada and can comprise as much as 50% of the population in some communities. Not hearing from voices that represent such a large portion of the First Nation population and the future of these communities emphasizes the need to engage this group more fully and encourage them to actively partake in decision-making within their communities.

Why is participation low?

There are a number of factors that explain why many First Nations members do not vote in Canadian elections at the reserve, municipal, provincial or national levels. Some of these reasons are deliberate such as negative past experiences with government that have resulted in anger and feeling disconnected with these types of institutions. The right to vote in national elections, for example, was not extended to Status Indians until 1960. For some, this is still relatively recent, while for others this is a learned injustice. For many there is a lack of trust in political parties and elected representatives, feelings of marginalization of Indigenous people (especially related to their socio-economic conditions) and a non-acceptance of Canadian citizenship. For example, some choose not to vote because they do not identify as Canadian. Some additional barriers to voting include a lack of First Nations representation in elected office, leadership in political parties and the absence of First Nations issues in party platforms. Indirectly, there continues to be limited understanding and education of the electoral process within Aboriginal communities (e.g. Chiefs, band councils, etc.).

First Nations use of digital technologies for community participation

Looking in this direction a handful of First Nations communities in Canada have recently adopted Internet voting to facilitate participation in votes, such as general assemblies for community ratification of constitutional provisions (e.g., Nipissing First Nation, Squamish First Nation, Huu-ay-aht First Nation). Others (e.g., Union of Ontario Indians) have used Internet voting as a means for broad consultation on important policy matters. A good number more are looking to incorporate Internet voting in upcoming community elections. Adopters include individual communities and broader First Nations associations, such as the Union of Ontario Indians ? an association that represents 39 member First Nation communities. These groups hope that improvements to accessibility delivered by the technology could improve participation among off-reserve members, youth, and those impeded by poor health or physical disability. With respect to administration of band elections, another rationale is that online ballots can provide a preferable substitute to mail-in ballots.

Our research

We want to understand whether digital technology can improve political participation and governance in First Nation communities in Ontario. Our project engages the communities of Dokis First Nation, Nipissing First Nation, Whitefish River First Nation, and Six Nations, which have either used, or plan to implement digital technology within the coming years. By working together we hope to answer some important questions about how digital technologies impact participation and governance at the local level. Two of the questions we are looking at include:

Q1. What is the impact of Internet voting on participation in First Nations elections?
Q2. What is the role of digital technology for enhancing knowledge, consultation, and governance in First Nations communities?

This research is still in the beginning stages, but we’ve learnt a little already about what some key impacts might be when these communities adopt Internet voting and other digital technologies in elections and votes, and what future use in these areas could look like.

  1. Building trust

Trust in elections can be an issue for First Nations communities and many local leaders want to ensure trust in the technology and process has been built before introducing Internet voting in binding elections. As a result many are inclined to carry out a first test by asking opinions about a new piece of legislation or feedback on an important community issue. Community leaders are excited about the prospects, but not too eager to rush anything and disrupt what may already be fragile trust in government.

  1. Not a replacement

Communities are not looking at Internet voting and the new participation opportunities digital technologies might allow for as a replacement of traditional engagement methods. There is a belief that these technologies should be used as one part of a suite of policies and tools that help engage community members. One community leader remarked that they are not inclined to have people engaging only as ?keyboard warriors.? They want to improve accessibility and offer new possibilities, while maintaining traditional participation options.

  1. More than just participation

Increased participation is an undeniable motivator, but other advantages of Internet voting can be equally appealing. Counting of ballots and the return of results, for example, can often be a long and arduous process in communities, with results sometimes not being tallied until 3:00am. Using digital platforms to facilitate votes has meant that results are known by 8:00pm, which allows community members to find out that night instead of having to wait until the next day.

  1. Cost

Cost of introducing the technology could be one of the biggest setbacks for these communities despite interest in using it. Often budgets are tight and wanting to maintain traditional channels can mean offering Internet voting is not financially feasible. Building trust and finding the funds to finance these changes appear to be the biggest barriers to adoption we’ve observed so far.

  1. Building community capacity

Many community leaders see additional opportunities for digital technology in elections. By getting a handle on how to use online voting for elections they hope to be able to adapt online tools in other ways to collect and analyse community-based data. The long-term goal would be to harness the power of data locally, as opposed to relying on consultants or outside actors. In this way, communities can acquire and disseminate their own evidence-based knowledge and build community capacity.

Democratic implications

First Nations in Canada are at the forefront of experimenting with new forms of Aboriginal self-government and institutional design. In particular, there is a movement in recent years to reduce the power of the Minister of Indian Affairs in the governance structure of First Nations and to increase the role and influence of members of the community. It is in the context of these changes that First Nations have become increasingly interested to experiment with digital technologies. Traditional forms of consultation such as community meetings and discussions in family circles will remain vital. However, it is important to learn whether (and how best) digital technologies might be leveraged to enhance processes of community consultation, and in turn foster greater certainty that decisions are a true reflection of community interests. In this context of local experimentation, it is especially important to contextualize and compare different strategies and choices in adoption, and to share what we learn across communities. Systematic research in this area will be invaluable to communities who seek to make their own informed decisions about how to best proceed in advancing modern governance structures and processes that are responsive to the needs and interests their people. There will be impacts to participation and governance and we hope to help communities and the broader public understand what these are and how they might be used to benefit First Nations.

Chelsea Gabel
Chelsea Gabel is currently an Assistant Professor at McMaster University in the Department of Health, Aging and Society cross-appointed with the Indigenous Studies Program. Dr. Gabel has previous experience working as a policy analyst and researcher with both the Assembly of First Nations and Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. Dr. Gabel is the Applicant for a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant entitled ?The Impact of Digital Technology on First Nations Participation and Governance? along with her co-applicants Drs. Nicole Goodman (McMaster University) and Karen Bird (McMaster University). She is also the Applicant for a SSHRC Insight Development Grant entitled ?Bridging the Gap: Using Photovoice to generate First Nations Elder and youth understandings of the importance of Intergenerational Communication in Wikwemikong, Ontario?. Dr. Gabel’s research interests are in Indigenous health, self-determination, governance and community-based research.


Nicole Goodman
Read her bio here.


Karen Bird
Karen Bird is Associate Professor of Political Science at McMaster University. She specializes in comparative politics, with particular focus on gender and ethnic diversity and the political representation of women and ethnic minorities in countries around the world. Among her current research projects is a study examining electoral quotas for ethnic minorities in as many as 30 countries around the world. She is part of an international collaborative project, Pathways to Power, on the political representation of citizens of immigrant origin in seven European democracies. Her most recent book (co-edited with Thomas Saalfeld and Andreas W?st), is The Political Representation of Immigrants and Minorities: Voters, Parties and Parliaments in Liberal Democracies (Routledge 2011).