Elections Canada says it won’t require its polling workers to be fully immunized against COVID-19, but all polling stations will be “highly controlled” with enhanced public safety measures in place.
Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault said on Wednesday that he has consulted widely about the move and continues to seek advice as the pandemic evolves.
“The recommendations do not include mandatory vaccination, whether they be for electors, for workers, or candidate representatives. In the next three weeks or so, poll returning officers will be hiring some 250,000 Canadians to work at the polls to serve approximately 18 million Canadians. These are the same Canadians, these are the same people you meet every day at the grocery store,” said Perrault.
Elections Canada says it will, however, impose additional safety measures at polling stations.
“[Canadians] can expect to see essentially the kind of measures that they now have been seeing for the last 18 months. So, we will have people in charge of ensuring that the place is clean, that the electors are properly distanced. They will see for example these physical transparent barriers that will separate the poll workers,” said Perrault.
Masks will be distributed, hand sanitizer enforced, and disposable pencils required, he added.
The news comes as federal party leaders try to make clear their stance on mandatory vaccinations after the government announced last week that vaccinations would be required of federal workers and most federal industries, as well as commercial air, rail, and cruise ship passengers by the fall.
Since then, debate has erupted around whether a mandatory vaccine policy infringes on individual rights.
Asked whether Elections Canada would refuse a ballot to someone not wearing a mask, Perrault said that if Canadians plan to vote without a mask – unless it is for medical reasons – they should plan to vote by mail.
What about mail-in ballots?
The organization is anticipating a significant increase in mail-in ballots this year compared to last. According to recent surveys, the number of Canadians interested in casting a ballot by mail could be between two and three million, as opposed to approximately 50,000 during the 2019 election.
In anticipation of this, Elections Canada says it has increased the capacity to process mail-in ballots, including implementing an online vote-by-mail application system. This will be a way for those who might be in self-isolation due to COVID-19 to still cast their votes, the agency said.
“All electors who successfully apply will be sent a special ballot voting kit with everything they need to vote. This includes a pre-addressed return envelope with prepaid postage, so there is no cost to electors to return their ballots to us,” said Elections Canada spokesperson Matthew McKenna in an email to CTVNews.ca.
Anyone going this route will also be able to check their status of their application to vote by mail, and see whether or not Elections Canada has received their completed and mailed-back special ballot. Perrault recommended that Canadians who wish to do this to do so early.
“They should leave enough time for their voter kit to get to them and for them to return it to Elections Canada by Election Day,” he said. “For those who are not apply online we will have traditional mail-in forms available.”
Asked how Elections Canada will prevent people who might try to double dip – voting both through mail-in and in-person, Perrault said when an individual opts for postal voting, they are immediately crossed off an official electors list.
“If somebody wishes to vote on polling day and their name is struck they’ll have to explain why and if they’ve lost their ballot, if it’s been misplaced or if they’ve not received it, then they will swear an oath,” he said.
Will there be additional advanced polling days?
There will be four advanced polling days, but no extra in-person days added. While there had been some suggestion of adopting a weekend-long polling period leading up to election day to spread out voters during a pandemic election, that idea didn’t get off the ground after concerns were raised about labour shortages and a limited number of polling locations that would be available for the full voting period, like schools or churches.
Will the location of my polling place be different than it was in 2019?
It’s possible Canadians will be voting in a different location than they have in previous federal elections.
Given the pandemic, Elections Canada says it has faced some challenges in identifying the nearly 18,000 voting locations usually used across the country. They say work is ongoing to nail down which locations will be used as polling places—including potentially renting some spaces. Factoring in the need to keep folks physically distanced, their options are different than in past elections. As a result, “polling places may be in unusual locations or slightly further from electors’ homes,” said McKenna.
Perrault said this is an “unfortunate” reality of hosting the election amid the pandemic.
“We know that some locations will not be the usual ones or may not be accessible so these are unfortunate circumstances but we will do everything we can to make the vote as accessible as possible,” he said.
The location of Canadians’ polling place will be identified on their voter information card, which typically arrives in the mail three weeks before election day.
Could it take longer to count the ballots this time?
Perrault said that it may take a few days longer to count ballots in 2021, but it depends on how many Canadians cast their votes by mail.
“Canadians are used to getting complete results on election night, but it will be different for this election. The count of regular ballots on ordinary polling day and advanced polls will be completed on the night of the election as usual. However, the count of mail-in ballots will start after Election Day,” he said.
With files from CTV News’ Rachel Aiello.
Where trapping is still a way of life, Quebec lithium projects spark fears for future
NEMASKA, QUE. — As Freddy Jolly’s pickup truck travels the dusty roads through the spruce forests outside Nemaska, Que., the one radio station fades in and out, and Jolly fills the gaps between country ballads with conversation.
“There are fewer moose than before due to logging,” Jolly says as he scans the horizon.
This is Eeyou Istchee in northern Quebec, the traditional land of the James Bay Cree, with a surface area equivalent to two-thirds of France. The 65-year-old Cree hunter and trapper knows the land well and has agreed to take a visitor to see sites where lithium mines are under construction.
Inside the pickup truck’s cab lie two rifles, one for small game and one for big game.
If he were to encounter a moose, Jolly would shoot it and share the meat with his community members, in keeping with tradition. He explains that in the fall, in the Eeyou Istchee, every family has moose meat in their freezer. Hunting is a source of food but it also helps maintain the cultural and spiritual values of the Cree Nation.
His parents and grandparents sold furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he sells them to a company in North Bay, Ont., but he fears that this way of life, which many Cree still depend on, will be disrupted by the rush for the new “white gold” — lithium.
Companies planning to develop mines in the region believe it contains some of the world’s largest deposits of spodumene, a lithium-rich mineral.
“There are more and more mining claims. I see more and more people from the south exploring and drilling on traditional hunting areas, and soon, many roads will be built for lithium mines,” Jolly says.
In order to develop mines for lithium and other critical minerals needed for the electrification of transportation, the Grand Council of the Crees and the Quebec government are planning to build hundreds of kilometres of new roads and power lines, a railroad, and a deepwater port in the Eeyou Istchee.
Jolly’s truck stops at kilometre 58 on the EM-1 road on the territory of the Cree community of Eastmain, north of Nemaska.
This is where Critical Elements Corp. plans to empty two lakes after harvesting the fish and donating them to the community. This will allow the development of an open pit lithium and tantalum mine that could produce about 4,500 tonnes of ore per day for 17 years.
The mine will be built directly on the traditional hunting grounds of Ernie Moses, the tallyman or supervisor for the local trapline.
“I’m sad, but there’s not much I can do about this project,” Moses says in an interview near one of the lakes that will be drained.
For several generations, his family has trapped beavers in the lake. The area is home to an abundance of game, fish, and bird species at risk, according to the federal government’s environmental assessment.
Critical Elements Corp., says that in order to extract ore from the ground in this region, which holds “one of the highest purity spodumene deposits in the world,” it will be necessary to destroy wetlands and cut down a significant number of trees.
“What will be left of this land in 20 years?” wonders Moses, adding that when he looks at the lake in front of him, he sees “beavers, but the mine sees dollar signs.”
The trapper made an agreement with the promoter to help him inventory the beavers on the territory so they can be removed before the lake is eliminated, and either relocated or killed for their pelts.
The Eeyou Istchee is divided into 300 family traplines, each large enough to support an extended family. Every one of these traditional traplines is under the responsibility of a tallyman like Moses, who on this day has brought along two of his daughters and his son-in-law to teach them.
“It’s important to pass on this traditional way of life; when I walk on this land, I take the place of my ancestors, they know I’m here,” he said. “Whenever I’m on my trapline, I think about them, I’m filling in for them, and I want this to continue after me.”
Mining exploration projects for various types of metal have more than doubled in the last 15 years in the Eeyou Istchee, going from 174 in 2004 to nearly 400 in 2021. A few dozen kilometres down the road from the soon-to-disappear lakes lies the future site of the Nemaska Lithium mine, in which the Quebec government has invested tens of millions of dollars.
Nemaska Lithium plans to blast the spodumene rocks that contain the precious metal, and to do so, it too will have to eliminate a small lake and a creek, in addition to altering several bodies of water, according to a company progress report.
The mining company estimates there will be between 3,770 and 5,500 square metres of habitat loss for several fish species, but a report from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada concludes the “anticipated negative residual effects on fish and fish habitat” are much greater — 54,600 square metres of fish habitat.
Louis-Martin Leclerc, a spokesman for the mine, said Nemaska Lithium is working on updating a compensation plan for the loss of fish habitat.
According to the company, 10 species of mammals considered threatened, vulnerable or at risk, including the wolverine and the woodland caribou, can be found in the project’s study area. Nemaska Lithium recognizes that a vast number of activities, during both the construction and operation phases of the mine, will impact wildlife.
However, Leclerc adds that there is no compensation plan for the loss of these mammals’ habitat because, according to its inventories, none of them have been observed on the actual site of the mine.
One of Jolly’s biggest concerns is that a chemical spill or mine tailings will contaminate other bodies of water. The mine site is located in the watershed of the Rupert River, one of the largest rivers in Quebec, which has always been an important source of food for the Cree.
“It would be catastrophic,” the trapper says with a sigh, adding that lithium mining is dividing his community.
Benoît Plante, a water quality expert, led a research project on the site of the future Nemaska mine.
“Zero risk does not exist,” said Plante, a professor at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. “There are risks of dust, physical stability and water contamination, but we have some of the best legislation, which can minimize these risks and make sure they are acceptable.”
Both the Nemaska Lithium and Critical Elements projects have received approval from federal and provincial authorities as well as Cree band councils in the region.
In Eastmain, band Chief Kenneth Cheezo supports the mining development.
“This is new for us, it’s the first time that a mine will open on this territory,” he said in an interview.
“The company has come into the community, into our schools, to talk to young people about the jobs that will be created, and we’re not just talking about low-level employees; there are job opportunities in engineering, human resources, and several management positions.”
The high school graduation rate has increased recently in Eastmain, and he believes this may be due to the eventual opening of the mine and the jobs that will be offered.
“I like to think that the success of our students over the past few years can be explained, perhaps in part, by the fact that they know, at the end of their studies, that something, a reward, may await them,” he said.
The companies have committed to providing job training in the Cree communities. Furthermore, the communities will receive undisclosed amounts of financial compensation for hosting the mines.
Cheezo says he is confident, based on meetings with Critical Elements Corp. representatives, that the extraction will be done in a way that minimizes environmental impacts.
However, he admits that finding the right balance between the traditional way of life, environmental protection and economic development is a perilous exercise.
“It’s very difficult, because the land is so sacred to us, so it’s painful to give a piece of it, even if it’s just a piece of rock.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.
Stéphane Blais received the support of the Michener Foundation, which awarded him a Michener–Deacon Investigative Journalism fellowship in 2022 to report on the impact of lithium extraction in northern Quebec.
Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press
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