Elections Canada forced to find novel digs to serve as polling stations during pandemic

The pandemic has forced Elections Canada to set up polling stations in novel places in Winnipeg, including the Ikea store in Tuxedo, Assiniboia Downs and a trailer in an inner-city Food Fare parking lot.

Faced with the prospect of voters mingling with unvaccinated children, Manitoba prevented Elections Canada from setting up polling stations in schools.

That forced returning officers to get creative, especially in Winnipeg, in their search for real estate large enough to house polling stations and keep voters two metres from each other.

“When we first found out schools weren’t allowed, our returning officers started looking for alternatives,” Elections Canada prairie spokesperson Marie-France Kenny said from Regina.

It turned out there were not enough large and accessible venues available in Manitoba to replace schools. Elections Canada will set up polls in 908 locations in this province on election day, down from 952 in 2019, Kenny said.

“Chances are in Winnipeg you’re not going to be voting in the same place you were before, because they were previously mostly in schools,” Kenny said. “You may be voting a little bit further than usual.”

The lower number of polling stations across Canada could reduce voter turnout, suggested John Beebe of the Democratic Engagement Exchange at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“People will have to travel further. If they’re used to going into the lobby in their building to vote, now they have to go to a new place.”

In Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley, some voters will cast their ballots at Assiniboia Downs on election day.

On the first day of advance polls, some Winnipeg South Centre voters drove to Ikea to cast their ballots. 

“I must say I found it a bit weird. I expected it might have been in a school or a community centre,” voter Jennifer Graham said outside the big-box store, adding there was nothing onerous about making the drive to Seasons of Tuxedo.

There were, however, scattered reports of long lines at a handful of Winnipeg polling stations on Friday.

Some Saint Boniface-Saint Vital voters waited more than an hour to cast a ballot at Centre St. Louis, a hall in the Tissot neighbourhood of St. Boniface.

“It’s nice out, so it’s not so bad, but I’m starting to worry about getting back to work,” said Monique Van Osch after waiting 30 minutes in line outside the polling station.

Kenny said voters can expect to wait longer outside polling stations at both advance polls and on election day, simply because more room has been set aside to keep voters apart indoors.

This advanced polling station in West Broadway is a trailer in a Food Fare parking lot. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Elections Canada also warned some voter cards were mailed out with incorrect polling station locations. Those locations changed after the mailout and new cards are on their way, Kenny said.

For example, an advance polling station planned for Winnipeg Art Gallery has been moved to a trailer outside in the Food Fare parking lot on Maryland Street in West Broadway.

Elections Canada advised all voters to check online to confirm the location of their polling stations, both during advance voting and on election day.

Advance polls are open until Monday. The federal election is Sept. 20.