The case for guaranteed Indigenous representation in Ottawa -

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


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.

MORE: Moving from talk to action on Indigenous affairs

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.

MORE: Sen. Murray Sinclair on the progress of truth and reconciliation

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.

MORE: How a new kind of resolution process can help with reconciliation

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.


The case for guaranteed Indigenous representation in Ottawa

  1. I’m glad to see that the Aboriginal relations manager at the City of Vancouver has taken the approach that, instead of carving out a separate space for Indigenous people, every aspect of the city government should have “cultural competency”. I think this is a wise approach. We should take the same approach in Parliament. Instead of guaranteed representation for Indigenous people, how about guaranteed representation for everybody? It’s called proportional representation, and it would require a different type of voting system. Fortunately, our prime minister made a definitive promise to give us a new voting system during the last election campaign, so all we have to do is convince him to keep his promise.

  2. We had a separatist run for the office of prime minister.

    Who the hell is ENTITLED to form our government aside from the democratic process?

    Would these entitled aboriginals look out for the interests of all Canadians, or only those of their own race?

    Is it the empty vessels plan to turn Canadian governance into, competing pay for play special interest lobby groups?

    • Only for their own interests, demand and arrogance!! Did I mention self serving, self absorbed, selfish, self centered????

  3. We have lots of great ideas in this country.

    We just never GET THEM DONE

  4. Well this “Settler” is on a fixed budget how much is this Wet Dream going to cost me on TOP of the $15B that the Indian Industry gets all ready???

    • How much does the military cost you?

      • What has THAT got to do with anything? At least the military does something, that is more than many Aboriginals do!!

        • Canada could save kabillions if it wanted to. The military, the senate, health and education waste…….and you want to cut off spending on native affairs………the people whose land you’re sitting on?

          That’s just racism.

          • The land I am sitting on cost me a years salary PLUS I continue to pay over 2% of my tax dollars to support Indigenous people. How can anyone say I am sitting on anyone else’s land?
            When does it stop?

          • And how is this the fault of the natives?

            The Algonquins still own Parliament Hill ya know

          • The indigenous people lost their land in the Indian Wars…much like they took it from the previous inhabitants. Much like our family had our land taken from us in Europe in the 1800’s. The only difference is this country is obsessed with correcting every perceived wrong to the detriment of the tax payer. What a rosy view of history to forget how the Iroquois wiped the Hurons off the face of the earth and had a penchant for human flesh. What you do with my tax dollars does matter to me.

          • WHAT ‘Indian wars??

            What cannibalism?

            Put the bottle down and walk away fromm your computer.

          • Everyone knows that.

            Before the coming of the whites, they had fought their way almost to the sea.

            The Athapascans stood low in the scale of civilization. Most of them lived in a prairie country where a luxuriant soil, not encumbered with trees, would have responded to the slightest labor. But the Athapascans, in Canada at least, knew nothing of agriculture. With alternations of starvation and rude plenty, they lived upon the unaided bounty of tribes of the far north, degraded by want and indolence, were often addicted to cannibalism.


          • Everybody DOESN’T know that because none of it is true.

            Get to Emergency……whatever you took could kill you..

  5. No No and No… 3 babies are born in a hospital. One happens to be Chinese heritage, one Caucasian and one aboriginal. The aboriginal child automatically already has more and different rights that do the other two babies.. and now this academic wants this aboriginal baby to potenially have undemocratic rights and representation in our House of Commons due to the fact that her representatives would not be elected by the people and whose interest would not be for all the people. We know the past has included grave wrongs to the indigenous people but we have tried and are continuing to try to improve this. We have to remember that before contact many First Nations were warriors and brutal themselves and there was a huge slave culture on the west coast. No group is without blood stains in their pasts. But constantly looking in the rearview mirror is destroying us. No other country is as self -mutilating as it Canada on this file. Creating parallel societies within one country is foolish in the long term. It will destroy us. We must all be treated the same and equal with no special rights to anyone. Yes, we will continue to acknowledge our past mistakes but we have got to move forward as one. Does anyone really own the land? We all came from southern Africa and have been moving ever since. Do I have more rights in the UK because of my celtic roots … first people there you know. Of course not. We have to all be treated equally. Special rights based on the colour of one’s skin may make some people feel better but it is racist and wrong to set up certain groups because of their backgrounds. Think of those 3 babies born in the hospital. They all deserve to treated with equal rights . Otherwise we are setting up a perilous future for us all. Recognition of the past and help for some who need it… of course. But representation in government just because of skin colour without the peoples’ vote. Foolish and dangerous. I am a teacher and we hear this stuff all the time and it is being taught to our children. Might be an idea to leave academics out of this conversation. They often do not live in the real world. Equality for all, not just some.

  6. I see we have a crowd of grade 3 drop-outs on here today!.

    • Actually those who criticise and judge others, including their education levels, because they do not agree with their own opinions are the ones who look less educated… and foolish… and not to be taken seriously.. I believe what I posted. I have a masters degree. For the record my family can trace it’s roots back 6 generations in Canada and I also have aboriginal blood on my mom’s side. Does that make me a SETTLER Ms. Emilyone ??? Actually your opinion is irrelevant. Inflexible dogma leaves no room for discussion.

      • You do NOT have a master’s degree… fact no degree at all.

        • Everything you say just proves my point. I do hold a Masters from UBC but as I said your opinion is irrelevant. You are very frightened of something. A good look in the mirror might help.

          • Oh be serious. LOL

  7. Does at least 6 generations of family in Canada and indigenous blood on my Mom’s side still mean I am an oppressor SETTLER Emily one?? Inflexible dogma that shuts down conversations are the result when people, such as yourself, judge others so maliciously and unfairly. You prove my point that equality must be the same for all. It is the only fair way forward. All societies , including aboriginal, have treated their people badly.

    • Now try reality.

      • Ahhh Emilyone is trolling the comments again.

    • If you’re appealing to reason from that one, you’re wasting your time.

      Keep exposing its lies, but because it demonstrates zero ethics or morality, don’t expect anything resembling rational discourse.

      • Yes, it appears that you’re correct. Many academics at the universities believe this stuff however and we the little people are not heard. It scares the hell out of me and as I said I am partly aboriginal on my Mom’s side.

        • Not that it’s pertinent, but do youwonder if you’d see it differently if you were recognized to have aboriginal status and the opportunity to have your hands in my pockets?

          • Hi. I made a fairly lengthy post on this subject and it appears on the first page of these comments. I stand by every word. I believe that we have to treat all people equally. I truly believe that… even if I could personally gain if I claimed anything using my small but real aboriginal blood. People don’t think past their own lives and into the future. Our society will not progress in a fair and positive way if different people have different rights. The idea of unelected folks in the House of Commons is just plain wrong. That is why we need to think about keeping academics away from these sorts of things. They can have opinions of course but universe help us all if some of their ideas caught the ear of a sympathetic politician who tried to make it policy and this resulted in the beginning of the erosion of our hard fought for democracy.

          • I agree with your equality for all perspective.

            I support equal opportunity, not forced equality of result.

            That’s why I’m vocal supporting free speech and opposing affirmative action and abortion.

            I was just wondering if you dodged a bullet by not being a status aboriginal.

            If you didn’t have to work to become accomplished, but were instead offered a free shack, a little land and other entitlements, would you have instead become a toothless beggar in a slum?

  8. “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
    Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)

    • Now that’s irony.

      • Some of us are qualified.

    • Komarade E1 Remember—the mighty indigenous peoples of the Americas couldn’t even figure out the wheel. The WHEEL. The average lifespan for Native Americans before Columbus committed “genocide” against them was around 35. It is now more than double that. When Columbus arrived in the New World, the total number of indigenous Injuns in what is now North America was less than two million. There currently are 5.2 million self-identified “Native Americans” in the USA alone and another two million or so in Canada

      • What would they need a wheel for Joesey> They didn’t have horses.

        And you’ve been told this many times before.

        However the Mayans had advance math and astronomy…..and Peru had big cities.

        You lose.

    • Isaac Asimov is one of my favourite all time authors. Yes we all must strive to read all points of view with open minds and not exist within our own echo chambers and listen only to our own tribes. Listening openly to other people’s perspectives is becoming a lost art unless we do so only to use their words in a pejorative fashion and to judge, obfuscate, distort and invalidate other peoples’ thoughts if they do not match our own. It is happening on the campuses and on these comment threads. Apparently Ms. Emily 1 believes she/he ?? is the only one right and all the rest of us are ‘anti-intellectual’ although I can guarantee I’ve sweated more years at university than he/ she has.

      • Not everyone who goes to university is an intellectual. Yawn

        • You’re right about that.

        • BTW.. The Mayans were great builders and most definitely developed certain types of mathematics and certainly studied the cosmos as can be seen to this day in structures that still exist in Tulum and other places. However, it is entirely incorrect to state that their mathematics and astronomy was advanced. Perhaps you could make that argument for the time at the height of their civilization but compared to our mathematics and astronomy of today theirs was actually fairly primitive.. advanced for the time but not advanced in today’s context. I know you won’t believe this as you seem to fall into the anti- intellectual vacumm Asimov was so astutely speaking about.