Canada’s aboriginals have made their voices heard over the last few weeks. But do they have the numbers to have their voices heard in the House of Commons?
A record seven MPs of First Nations, Inuit, or Métis origin were elected in the May 2011 federal election. Four were successful in their re-election bids, while three were elected to the House of Commons for the first time. The seven are Roméo Saganash (Cree First Nation of Waswanipi), Peter Penashue (Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation), Jonathan Genest-Jourdain (Innu Takuaikan Uashat mak Mani-Utenam Band), Rob Clarke (Muskeg Lake First Nation), Leona Aglukkaq (of Inuit origin), and Shelly Glover and Rod Bruinooge (both of Métis origin).
But in addition to representing the constituents of their respective ridings, these seven MPs are not enough to represent the almost 1.2 million aboriginals in Canada. These seven MPs occupy 2.3 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, while aboriginals represent 3.8 per cent of the population (according to the 2006 census, the last to report the aboriginal population). (Read the infographic)
Nevertheless, with the exception of the MPs sent to Ottawa after the 1997 election, this is the closest aboriginals have come to adequate representation in the House of Commons (in 1997, six aboriginal MPs occupied 2 per cent of the House when aboriginals made up 2.8 per cent of the population). While the 2011 election may have been a high water mark, there is still a long way to go.
Canada’s aboriginal peoples are not the only group under-represented on Parliament Hill. Women, visible minorities, and younger Canadians also punch below their weight in the House of Commons – and always have.
A large swathe of Canada’s youth is ineligible to vote. But those aged between 18 and 40 have been under-represented in the House of Commons for some time: while only 19 per cent of MPs elected in May 2011 were under the age of 40, Canadians between the ages of 18 and 40 make up about 39 per cent of the population (this estimate was derived by including Canadians between the ages of 15 and 17 and 41 and 44, due to how Statistics Canada breaks down the numbers).
A study in the Canadian Parliamentary Review by J.P. Lewis showed that this under-representation goes back to Confederation. Canada’s youth has not won more than 63 per cent of the seats they were due based on their population in at least the last century. And youth representation has only increased over the last few elections after falling sharply in the 1980s and 1990s.
Women’s representation has been worse. Until 1962, the number of women elected in each general election could be counted on one hand, and it was not until 1988 that women won more than 10 per cent of the seats up for grabs.
Since then, women’s representation has increased dramatically, with over 50 women being elected in 1993 and over 60 in 1997. The 2011 vote had the most women elected in one election.
Still, their representation in the House of Commons is woefully inadequate. After the last election, they occupied only 48 per cent of the seats their population warranted. In every election since 1962, with the exception of the 2008 election, the share of seats won by women was less representative of their population than those won by aboriginal candidates. In fact, aboriginals have had better representation in terms of their population than women and younger Canadians in almost every election over the last 20 years. Visible minorities have also been under-represented over the last two decades. A study by Jerome Black showed that they have only won half or less than their fair share of seats in the six elections between 1993 and 2008.
Of course, representation alone is not the solution to solving aboriginal issues. Non-aboriginal MPs are capable of defending the interests of Canada’s First Nations in the House of Commons. And aboriginals are hardly homogenous in their needs and views. But under-representation, be it of women, youth, visible minorities, or aboriginals, should be of concern to this country’s leaders, and especially to those worried about the lack of interest in our politics, decreasing political participation, and plummeting turnout.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .