Melissa Williams is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a Senior Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.
There is a glaring gap in the electoral reform agenda as it has played out so far in the media and in the work of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform: the systematic under-representation of indigenous people in Parliament.
The Committee has done an otherwise commendable job of consulting non-indigenous Canadians, some of whom – to their credit – have cited indigenous under-representation as a good reason for electoral reform. But the Committee’s mandate did not highlight this issue, and there has been no structured outreach to indigenous people to solicit their views.
In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to “reset” Canada’s relationship with indigenous people, no decision about electoral reform should be made without directly addressing the relative voicelessness of indigenous people in our legislative process. And that question cannot be legitimately addressed without a serious engagement with indigenous people.
Indigenous people are chronically underrepresented in Parliament. Until the 2015 elections, there had been only 34 indigenous MPs in the entire history of Canada since Confederation, and only 15 indigenous senators. Following the unprecedented mobilization of indigenous voters in 2015, there was a striking increase in the number of MPs, for a total of ten.
But this may be close to the upper limit of what’s possible under our existing system, and it’s still less than three per cent of the total number of MPs, while indigenous people comprise at least 4.3 per cent of the population.
The under-representation of indigenous people in the federal Parliament is different from the under-representation of women, visible minorities, and other minorities.
That’s because indigenous people occupy a unique position in our legal order: they’re the only group that’s governed by laws that are different from the laws governing everyone else, beginning with the deeply colonial Indian Act. Living under separate laws could be justifiable in a decolonized “nation-to-nation” relationship, but we’re far from realizing that aspiration.
As it stands, the federal government exercises jurisdiction over indigenous people in policy domains that are provincial jurisdictions for everyone else, including such fundamental issues as child welfare, education, health, housing and water.
In each of these domains, Canada fails miserably to provide basic social protections for indigenous people on a par with what non-indigenous Canadians enjoy: Consider the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that Canada discriminates against indigenous children in child welfare services. Or the fact that Canadian governments spend 30 per cent less on the education of indigenous children living on reserves than on non-indigenous children. Or the fact that unsafe water conditions affect over 150,000 indigenous people, including children who are sick as a result.
These gross inequalities make clear that the existing system of political representation is not representing the most basic needs and interests of indigenous people, and they should be unacceptable to all of us.
Could these injustices persist if indigenous people had an effective voice in Parliament?
How could we improve indigenous representation in federal institutions? There are many models out there. New Zealand combines proportional representation with dedicated seats for representatives elected by people of Maori descent, who have opted into a separate electoral roll.
It has increased the number of Maori MPs and improved the representation of Maori interests. Back in 1991, Canada’s Royal Commission on Electoral Reform proposed separate Aboriginal Electoral Districts similar to New Zealand’s but without the PR component. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended a House of First Peoples as a third house of Parliament. A key challenge is how to remedy under-representation while also realizing indigenous rights of self-determination, but that can’t be addressed that if we leave indigenous under-representation off the agenda.
There’s no doubt that opening up the question of indigenous representation will complicate the challenge of electoral reform. But the window of opportunity for real reform opens only rarely.
If Canadians are serious about resetting the relationship with indigenous people we should not miss this chance to address the greatest moral failing of our representative institutions. The first step is a consultation process at least as serious as the Committee’s outreach to non-indigenous Canadians, and one that indigenous people can regard as legitimate.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: