Re­serv­ing seats in the House for Abo­rig­i­nal MHAS


One mea­sure of the health of any lib­eral democ­racy is the de­gree to which its cit­i­zens par­tic­i­pate in elec­tions. It is now the case that, in both fed­eral and pro­vin­cial elec­tions, Abo­rig­i­nal Cana­di­ans con­sis­tently par­tic­i­pate at lower lev­els than their non-abo­rig­i­nal coun­ter­parts. Yet, there is very lit­tle in the aca­demic lit­er­a­ture on Abo­rig­i­nal po­lit­i­cal be­hav­iour. The work that does ex­ist posits a num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons for this lower rate of par­tic­i­pa­tion: the most con­cern­ing is the dif­fer­ent views held by Abo­rig­i­nal and non-abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens on ques­tions about the le­git­i­macy of fed­eral and pro­vin­cial in­sti­tu­tions of gov­ern­ment.

From the point of view of Abo­rig­i­nal Cana­di­ans, the le­git­i­macy of these in­sti­tu­tions is prob­lem­atic in at least two ways.

First, these in­sti­tu­tions are “alien” in the sense that they were im­posed on Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples as a re­sult of set­tler­state colo­nial­ism. This form of colo­nial­ism led to the de­struc­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity and the cre­ation of non- Abo­rig­i­nal forms of gov­ern­ment. Ev­i­dence il­lus­trates that some Abo­rig­i­nal Cana­di­ans stay away from the bal­lot box as a way of re­sist­ing the po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity of these “alien” gov­ern­ments. Dimitrios Panagos

Sec­ond, these in­sti­tu­tions, which em­ploy the first-past­the-post prin­ci­ple, cre­ate struc­tural dis­ad­van­tages for pop­u­la­tions that are small and dis­persed. Given the fact that Abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens con­sti­tute nu­mer­i­cal mi­nori­ties in many prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries, and the fact that these same cit­i­zens are, for the most part, dis­persed through­out the coun­try, the abil­ity of Abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens to shape the out­come of elec­tions is gen­er­ally limited. When mi­nor­ity vot­ers are con­fronted with these sorts of struc­tural prob­lems, they ar­guably have good rea­son to skip the vot­ing booth.

The House of Assem­bly in New­found­land and Labrador, like all of its coun­ter­parts in Canada, is sub­ject to these two le­git­i­macy prob­lems. A num­ber of schol­ars have ar­gued that chang­ing ex­ist­ing elec­toral bound­aries to rec­og­nize “com­mu­ni­ties of in­ter­est” is one way to ad­dress the lat­ter le­git­i­macy prob­lem. How­ever, fo­cus­ing on elec­toral bound­aries will not ad­dress the for­mer le­git­i­macy prob­lem stem­ming from the usurpa­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity.

One pos­si­ble way to ad­dress both of the prob­lems of le­git­i­macy, in a fash­ion that is rea­son­ably cost-neu­tral, is to adopt the New Zealand model and cre­ate “re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats” in the leg­is­la­ture. These seats would be “re­served” in the sense that they would be elected solely by mem­bers of the Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion and only Abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens could hold these seats. Cre­at­ing re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats would re­quire the cre­ation of two dif­fer­ent elec­toral rolls, and pro­vid­ing Abo­rig­i­nal New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans with the choice of ei­ther reg­is­ter­ing on an Abo­rig­i­nal elec­tors’ roll or a gen­eral elec­tors’ roll. Abo­rig­i­nal vot­ers on the for­mer roll would elect the Abo­rig­i­nal in­di­vid­u­als who would hold the re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats and the other vot­ers on the gen­eral roll would elect the re­main­ing MHAS who would be ei­ther Abo­rig­i­nal or non-abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens.

Re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats in the House of Assem­bly would ad­dress both types of le­git­i­macy prob­lems. In terms of the struc­tural dis­ad­van­tages that stem from the fact that the Abo­rig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion is a nu­mer­i­cal mi­nor­ity, the ex­is­tence of these seats would off­set some of the neg­a­tive im­pacts of this fac­tor. Since non-abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple could not vote for the re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats, the elec­toral re­sults in these in­stances would be solely de­ter­mined by Abo­rig­i­nal vot­ers.

In terms of the prob­lems of le­git­i­macy stem­ming from the usurpa­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity, re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats are one way of high­light­ing the unique place of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples in the prov­ince. These seats would guar­an­tee that a cer­tain num­ber of Abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens would be present in ev­ery leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zens could look at the com­po­si­tion of the House and see mem­bers of their com­mu­nity star­ing back at them. This rep­re­sen­ta­tion is cer­tainly of sym­bolic im­por­tance.

Abo­rig­i­nal pres­ence in the House is, of course, also an ef­fec­tive way to bring at­ten­tion to is­sues that are im­por­tant to Abo­rig­i­nal New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans and, po­ten­tially, to get these is­sues on the leg­isla­tive agenda. Bet­ter leg­is­la­tion — leg­is­la­tion that ad­dresses Abo­rig­i­nal con­cerns — may go some way to mit­i­gat­ing this as­pect of the le­git­i­macy deficit.

The ef­fi­cacy of such a scheme is cer­tainly re­lated to specifics not out­lined here. Im­por­tant ques­tions re­main. How many re­served Abo­rig­i­nal seats would be ap­pro­pri­ate? How would these seats be dis­trib­uted? Should fac­tors aside from Abo­rig­i­nal­ity (for ex­am­ple, sex or com­mu­nity mem­ber­ship) im­pact the el­i­gi­bil­ity of those seek­ing to run for the re­served seats?

The an­swers to these ques­tions are best not de­ter­mined with­out the ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion of the po­ten­tially af­fected Abo­rig­i­nal par­ties. This is es­pe­cially true given that an im­por­tant part of the le­git­i­macy prob­lem out­lined above re­sulted from the im­po­si­tion of an alien po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity.

Ideally, any changes to the elec­toral sys­tem must be the re­sult of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment.


Dimitrios Panagos

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