"I vote because majority rules, whether you’re black, white, pink… voting counts," Chief says, tucking his chin into the knitted scarf around his neck to brace against the wind at Main Street and Henry Avenue.
It's early in the day, Oct. 10, and an out-of-season snowstorm is rolling into Manitoba's capital. The wind is picking up and wet snowflakes are starting to fly — but despite the conditions, the topic of voting while homeless is an easy conversation-starter in Winnipeg’s emergency shelter district.
While Chief is passionate about exercising his democratic right, the process of doing so isn’t easy. He doesn’t have a fixed address or government-issued identification — although he can rattle off his social insurance and Manitoba health numbers from memory.
Identification, access to information and polling station locations all present barriers to voting for those experiencing homelessness.
Canadians have been required to show ID to be able to vote in federal elections since 2007, when the Harper government passed an amendment to the Canadian Elections Act. However, getting an ID is cost-prohibitive for Chief.
"I can’t afford it," he says. "Not only me, but all these other people like me that are on Main Street. That needs to change totally."
Citizen’s Bridge is a non-profit organization run by the North End Community Renewal Corporation that helps low-income and marginalized Winnipeggers get proper ID — specifically Canadian birth certificates, which are the foundation for every other piece of identification.
"These systems are incredibly tough to navigate, sometimes," says Addie Ducharme, outreach co-ordinator for Citizen’s Bridge. "Every single province and territory has its own application, its own wait time, and its own monetary cost and its own set of rules in order to apply."
While Manitoba’s application process is relatively straightforward, those born in Ontario are asked to provide five pages of information, including details about the doctor present at the delivery and the mother’s address at the time of birth.
Citizen’s Bridge has been operating out of an office at 607 Selkirk Ave. for seven years; in 2018, staff assisted with 1,400 birth certificate applications. The organization covers the application fee — $30 in Manitoba — and provides ID storage for clients, many of whom are homeless.
"People who tend to be the most vulnerable are the first ones to be victimized, so they’re robbed more often or… their stuff gets thrown out pretty frequently, and a birth certificate is not a throwaway document," Ducharme says, adding clients can check their ID out — like a library book — whenever then need it.
During elections, Citizen’s Bridge sees an uptick in requests for ID assistance.
"The problem is, a Manitoba birth certificate is taking on average between 12 to 16 weeks to come back," Ducharme says. "You can have it rushed if you can afford the rush fee, which is $35."
Identification makes it easier to cast a vote, but there are options for those unable to present the necessary documents.
Last December, the federal government reinstated "vouching" at polling stations, which allows someone who is homeless to declare their identity and address in writing and have someone they know in their electoral district vouch for them.
Elections Canada requires voters to have one piece of photo ID or two pieces of ID with their name and current address. For homeless voters with some form of identification, but no fixed address, the agency will accept a signed confirmation of residence letter from a shelter or soup kitchen they frequent.
"If you don’t have a fixed address or someone from your borough to vouch for you, it’s not really possible to vote," Ducharme says. "I think it’s terrible. I think people who are on the bottom rung of social structures… should have the biggest voice, because the politics that are happening around them, they’re not benefiting from."
“If you don’t have a fixed address or someone from your borough to vouch for you, it’s not really possible to vote. I think it’s terrible. I think people who are on the bottom rung of social structures… should have the biggest voice, because the politics that are happening around them, they’re not benefiting from.” - Addie Ducharme, Citizen’s Bridge outreach co-ordinator
At the blustery corner of Main and Henry, Chief describes his living situation. There are three emergency shelters within a few blocks. He uses the Main Street Project on Martha Street as his mailing address, and will access programs through Siloam Mission and the Salvation Army, but prefers to sleep outdoors most nights.
Of the more than 1,500 people surveyed for Winnipeg’s 2018 Street Census, 204 respondents were living unsheltered either by choice or because they had no other option.
Chief is wary of institutions, and his feelings become apparent when he’s asked his opinion on the government’s record on Indigenous issues.
"The government sucks. They concentrate more on institutionalization, getting people into institutions," he says. "If they can, they’ll take all of Main Street and turn it into an institution… and then the government will make 167 rules for those (citizens) to follow. What kind of institution is that, jail?"
Chief says he isn’t sure who he’s going to vote for Oct. 21. He has more research to do.
"I read the Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun," he says. "I read a lot at the library."
Beyond getting the proper credentials to vote, access to information about candidates and party platforms is barrier for those living on the streets.
"(For) folks who are living in poverty, access to those kinds of materials or technology to be more of an informed voter I think becomes a lot more difficult," says Laiza Pacheco, director of programs at Siloam Mission. "The homeless population, it’s not that they aren’t interested, but it also is a challenge to get the information needed so they know who they even wanted to vote for.
"Voting is a right, but I think that in some cases it ends up being a bit of a luxury for people and there is a privilege that comes with voting."
Jennifer Vanhuit, 42, has been homeless for the last four years after getting hit by a car. She uses a wheelchair and has been living in a tent for nearly two months with her partner, Joseph Tulloch.
Vanhuit uses public libraries to stay informed and TV, newspapers and the internet are her main sources for political news.
"I’ve been interested in politics all my life and I keep up with the news, so I pretty much know what’s going on," she says, adding she plans to vote NDP. "They do what they say they're in for, they’re not greedy."
Tulloch, 46, doesn’t share his partner’s enthusiasm, but still plans on voting.
"I don’t like the politics of it all," he says. "It just doesn’t seem like it matters. Once that person gets voted in, they don’t do what they’re supposed to."
Affordable, accessible housing is the main election issue the couple want to see addressed.
“(For) folks who are living in poverty, access to those kinds of materials or technology to be more of an informed voter I think becomes a lot more difficult.” - Laiza Pacheco, director of programs at Siloam Mission
"And homelessness and crystal meth," Vanhuit adds. "I’m really, really disappointed in the fact that that drug is here and I wish I could kill the person who invented it because it’s ruining a lot of lives and killing a lot of innocent people."
Vanhuit and Tulloch will need a residence confirmation letter from Salvation Army (the shelter they use most) to vote Oct. 21. The shelters’ address will determine which polling station they can vote at.
There will be a number of polling stations in the neighbourhood, but Elections Canada won’t be setting any up inside shelters. According to information provided by the federal agency, mobile polling stations are only available for voters living in a long-term care facility.
During the provincial election in September, polling stations were set up at Siloam Mission, Salvation Army Booth Centre and Main Street Project. Elections Manitoba has been providing stations in shelters since at least 1995.
Such on-site voting can help maximize turnout, says Adrienne Dudek, director of supportive and transitional housing at Main Street Project.
"There’s actually a huge number of people who we could access who might not be able to go find a (polling station)," she says. "To somebody who doesn’t have a lot of sense of time or who lives on their own schedule or if it’s not part of meeting their daily needs, it’s a lot harder to get to."
On any given day, Main Street Project has 80 people using its emergency shelter, 34 in its transitional housing program and many more in its detox facilities. Staff at the downtown shelter also have personal relationships with many of the people who come in and can help sort out documents and vouch for them on election day.
"We have direct relationships with people, so we can prepare them and should they forget something... we can look in our archives," Dudek says. "There’s a lot of ways we can support people on the spot who already have a bunch of barriers in place."
On election day, Main Street Project will make shuttles and case workers available to escort people who want to vote to nearby polling stations.
On Oct. 10, Cyril Raven waited patiently for his chance to speak to the Free Press. He was wearing a thin, navy blue hoodie and using his walker as a chair, melted snowflakes collecting on his glasses. When the interview turned to him, he didn’t mince words.
"My voice means a lot to me," Raven says. "If you’re homeless, nobody looks at you, they don’t even see you, but if they know you have a home and a job, people respect you. I find that very degrading."
Raven's Indigenous name is Flying Strong Thunderbird Man, and he’s been trying to practice his culture again after living on the streets in Winnipeg and Kenora, Ont., for the better part of 25 years.
Raven says his ID is in Dryden, Ont., at the moment, but he’s made arrangements to have it replaced ahead of election day. He feels bad for his contemporaries without identification.
"They have a choice to vote, too, but they’re being neglected by not being able to speak their opinions, and that’s not right," he says.
Raven has voted for every level of government, including chief and council. Even though he believes voting is important, he’s not convinced politicians have his best interests in mind.
"They should do something to help the people instead of helping the rich and famous — look down at the little guy and help him off the street, nevermind the big fancy buildings," he says. "A lot of them are trying to get off the ground and be free."
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Friday, October 18, 2019 at 5:35 PM CDT: fixes typo