The case for guaranteed Indigenous representation in Ottawa

Opinion: The relationship between settler Canadians and Indigenous Peoples calls for serious ideas about reform—and that includes Parliament

<p>People hold up a sign during a demonstration on Parliament Hill, as a crowd gathered to erect a teepee as part of a four-day Canada Day protest, in Ottawa on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang</p>

People hold up a sign during a demonstration on Parliament Hill, as a crowd gathered to erect a teepee as part of a four-day Canada Day protest, in Ottawa on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

A Canadian flag waves with Parliament in the background.

For more than a year and a half, Ginger Gosnell-Myers—the Aboriginal relations manager at the City of Vancouver—has been a part of a transformation at city hall through her work “indigenizing” the municipal government. Rather than carving out a specific “Indigenous” space, she works to ensure that government comprises many Indigenous spaces, sensibilities, and considerations. Accordingly, when it comes to working with Indigenous Peoples, she cautions against the separation of solitudes, while advising us to pursue what she calls “cultural competency.”

It’s work that has given Gosnell-Myers real insight into what we can do to transform our social, cultural and political relationship with Indigenous peoples. It requires the sort of openness and understanding that demands genuine, sustained work by settler Canadians, she says—but it also requires structural change. Her advice? “Take time to know and to learn,” she says—a process in which settlers ask questions, listen, understand, learn, and remain open to transforming relationships. Transformation is key here; tinkering is not enough.

We would be well-served to heed that advice, in Vancouver and beyond. One way to extend the spirit of her counsel into our national dialogue is by offering Indigenous Peoples guaranteed representation in Parliament, carving out space for the further indigenizing of the Canadian state.

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An offer of guaranteed representation for those who were here first would be a bold advancement of the conversation about how Canada and its Indigenous peoples ought to live together. I say “conversation” and “offer” deliberately and carefully; the proposal to guarantee representation for Indigenous peoples in the Canadian Parliament should be developed and put to Indigenous leadership and peoples for their approval or rejection, lest the colonial relationship be further extended into yet another well-meaning, inappropriate, and inadequate attempt at recognition and reconciliation. It may well be the case that certain Indigenous communities have no interest in a guaranteed representation relationship with Parliament—and for good reason. But at the very least, Canada should make the offer.

After all, the relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples in Canada is a continuation of a colonial project that reaches back centuries. Contrary to the cries of “The past is past!” from myopic egalitarians and assimilationists, the past is the present when it comes to how settlers in Canada live alongside peoples whose tenure on this land preceded our arrival here. In recent years, attempts at recognition and reconciliation have come up short. Despite what some people saw as hopeful moments with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Idle No More movement, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—which Canada voted against in 2007, but now endorses “without qualification”—this country does not yet have a just, sustainable relationship with Indigenous peoples.

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Such a move would not be unprecedented, either. In 1867, New Zealand set aside four seats in Parliament for its Indigenous Maori population, even though the Maori were also segregated into their own electoral roll without an option to join the general roll until 1975. After New Zealand adopted proportional representation in 1993, the system changed, fixing the number of seats to the number of Maori electors—which has led to recent elections returning seven Maori seats. Over the years there have been movements to do away with the guaranteed seats, but those efforts have often been resisted by Maori who value guaranteed representation—which has been, at the very least, a symbolic acknowledgment of the special place of their people within the country.

In the United States, the state of Maine has guaranteed assembly representation—albeit non-voting representation—for two of its largest tribes. Weaker representative bodies exist for Indigenous peoples in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Even Australia, a country with a particularly fractious relationship with its original inhabitants, has considered a new representation arrangement.

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People hold up a sign during a demonstration on Parliament Hill, as a crowd gathered to erect a teepee as part of a four-day Canada Day protest, in Ottawa on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

In Canada itself, the idea of guaranteed Indigenous representation isn’t new. It’s one that stretches back at least to a call by Louis Riel in 1870, and has popped up again from time to time since then. Indeed, the House of Commons addressed the issue in the early 1980s and again in the early and mid-1990s, striking Special Committees and Royal Commissions in true, studious, but often toothless, Canadian fashion. In 2008, the late senator Aurélien Gill introduced a private member’s bill in the Senate recommending that a third chamber of Parliament be established for Aboriginal peoples, following up on a recommendation made by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. In 2016 and 2017, during the debate over federal electoral reformthe idea surfaced once again. Surprisingly, data suggested that many Canadians were open to the idea—but no significant movement on the file has happened since.

There are different lines of argument in support of offering guaranteed seats or even a separate assembly to Indigenous Peoples, but the most compelling is that this move could help transform our colonial relationship. Canada could learn from New Zealand and other jurisdictions. We could develop an offer for representation that moves beyond symbolism and empowers Indigenous representation through a substantive and significant transfer of governing authority. Recognition and reconciliation must be built on such a movement of real power away from settlers and towards Indigenous peoples on terms that the latter can accept.

It’s time that the idea of guaranteed Indigenous representation in Parliament is taken seriously, pressed beyond study and debate and reflection, and made into a formal offer. It’s far too easy to say that we’ve had this debate before, or that we’re committed to UNDRIP, or to point to how many Indigenous people Canadians elected in 2015. Futzing around the margins is not nearly enough to achieve the just relationships that are owed to so many. The ongoing colonial relationship between the state and Indigenous peoples will not improve anywhere near sufficiently until we stop the settler temporizing and distribute authority and power more equitably. Guaranteed representation will not be enough on its own—but offering it would be a big step in the right direction.