At the time this article was
written Len Marchand was a member of the Senate of Canada
The electoral system is the
fundamental bridge binding citizens and legislators. Its legitimacy, and hence
parliament's, rests upon its ability to ensure that all Canadians have an
opportunity to participate on an equal footing. Aboriginal peoples do not
participate in the electoral process on equal footing with other Canadians, nor
as a result, do aboriginal people have the opportunity to participate in the
parliamentary process on an equal footing with other Canadians.
Parliament is the exclusive domain
of the settlers, a reflection no doubt, of the fact that the electoral system
was designed by settlers, for settlers and historically developed to exclude
While aboriginal peoples were
provided with universal suffrage only in 1960, the electoral system fragments
aboriginal voting strength to the point where an aboriginal vote is next to
meaningless. Of the 295 members in the House of Commons, there are presently
only three members of aboriginal descent in the House, two from the Northwest
Territories where the aboriginal people form a majority. South of the 60th
parallel, there is only one member of aboriginal descent, yet there are over
700,000 aboriginals south of the 60th parallel.
This is all the more frustrating
for me because I was involved in the struggle to gain the franchise in 1960. I
have always been a strong believer in the parliamentary system and the rule of
the law, but I must confess that I broke the law by slipping into the polling
booth and casting a ballot in the 1958 general election. It was a difficult
decision at the time, I felt it was my right as a citizen to vote. Since
legislation denied me this right, I could not in good conscience respect or
obey the law. It was a humiliating experience, but nonetheless strengthened my
resolve to change the system.
I remember the excitement that was
generated when the Diefenbaker government extended the franchise to all of our
people. As it has turned out there has been very little to get excited about.
Some of us have been able to find
the path to parliament, but for the vast majority of aboriginal Canadians,
parliament is seen in the distance, and there is no trail to get there. The
trails that do exist are made for the work boots of the settlers. The path has
been too sharp for the moccasins of our people. I have walked those trails and
had my moccasins pierced many times.
John Stewart Mills had it right
when commenting upon the short comings of the British Electoral System, he
noted "In a representative body actually deliberating, the minority must
of course be overruled; and in an equal democracy the majority of the people,
through their representatives, will outvote and prevail over the minority and
their representatives. But does it follow that the minority should have no
representation at all? Because the majority have all the votes, the minority
none? Is it necessary that the minority should not even be heard? Nothing but
habit and old association can reconcile any responsible being to the needless
The electoral system that Mills
spoke of over a century ago, is of course the forerunner to the Canadian
electoral system. His rhetorical questions are as appropriate today as they
were then. Put another way, must the majority have all the representation,
aboriginal people none? The injustice does not end there, we have taken
electoral inequality to new heights in Canada.
Our system has been adapted to
accommodate linguistic and cultural minorities in Canada. The Electoral
Boundaries Readjustment Act allows boundary commissioners to recognize
"communities of interest", "communities of identity", and
the "historical patterns of electoral districts in a province".
These provisions were designed to
accommodate the electoral interests of our linguistic minorities and are broad
enough to accommodate the electoral interests of ethnic minorities in places
like Toronto and Montreal. For example, these provisions protect and enhance
the electoral interests of francophone minorities outside Quebec like St.
Boniface, Manitoba, and Ottawa-Vanier. The same can be said for certain
anglophone ridings in Montreal and the Eastern Townships.
However, this legislation is not
broad enough to cover the broad demographic distribution of aboriginal peoples.
The issue, therefore is not one concerning the admissability of group rights
but rather which group shall be granted recognition in the electoral process.
Some groups, it appears are more equal than others. Accordingly, not only is
there individual inequality within the electoral system but group inequality as
well. Let me outline some of the impediments that I have identified that impact
adversely on aboriginal electoral participation.
First, while aboriginal people constitute upwards
of three percent of the overall Canadian population, their demographic
distribution has left them numerical minorities in all but the two ridings. The
Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act does not address this problem.
South of the 60th parallel, there are only two ridings where aboriginal people
constitute more than twenty percent of the population. Only seven ridings have
more than ten percent and a further five ridings can boast of an aboriginal
population of more than five percent. While the data in the federal electoral
profiles is deficient, it nonetheless shows that aboriginal voting strength has
been seriously diluted.
Second, the historical exclusion of aboriginal
peoples from the franchise has adversely impacted upon aboriginal participation
in the three national political parties. Participation in the national parties
has often been a necessary precondition for an individual to enter the House of
Commons. Historically, the three national parties have not taken an interest in
aboriginal electoral interests. They have been content with the view that
aboriginal people do not vote. This view has only served to preserve the status
quo. The truth is aboriginal peoples have not participated because their votes
do not count for much under the existing electoral system. Only in the last
year, has the Liberal Party of Canada taken meaningful measures to increase
aboriginal participation within the party. The other parties have yet to deal
effectively with aboriginal under-representation within their party structures.
But, increasing participation within the national political parties is only
part of the answer.
Third, is the socio-economic circumstances of our
people. When aboriginal people on the street in Regina are scraping around for
their next meal it is hard for them to justify bus fare to go to the polling
booth to cast a ballot. Undoubtedly, the poor socio-economic circumstances has
led to poor self esteem and has adversely impacted upon aboriginal electoral
Fourth, aboriginal peoples more than all Canadians
rely heavily on federal fiscal transfers. As the government views expenditures
on aboriginal people, as a fixed pie of resources, aboriginal peoples are
concerned that participation within a political party particularly an
opposition party, put these transfers at risk. As a result many of our people
are not encouraged to participate. Indeed, participation within the national
political parties can, and often does, impact adversely upon the personal careers
of aboriginal Canadians. When one considers that most of the active people in
our communities are involved with aboriginal political or social delivery
agencies, this impediment is that much more compelling. Many of our people work
in the federal, provincial and territorial public service where participation
is inherently limited.
All these concerns must be
addressed. Some will require attitudinal changes. Others are structural
problems. The best way to address structural problems within the existing
system is to guarantee aboriginal peoples ridings that overlay existing federal
electoral districts. The number and allocation of districts must be allocated
in proportion to the number of aboriginal peoples in the country, and reflect
the demographic distribution of aboriginal people in each province.
We do not have equal government, we
have a government of inequality and privilege because the existing electoral
system does not promote equality.
Based upon the 1986 census,
aboriginal people should be entitled to at least three percent of all members
in the House of Commons. If this proposal were adopted nine guaranteed
aboriginal electoral districts would be set aside for aboriginal peoples. Naturally,
the number of ridings would have to be adjusted to take into consideration
natural population growth. This should occur following each decennial census.
Under this proposal, it would be necessary to establish a separate aboriginal
electoral role, as is the case in New Zealand where the Maori people have
guaranteed representation in parliament. Aboriginal peoples would have the
option of having their name incorporated on the general role or on the
aboriginal role - but not both.
While we are presently examining
the constitutional and legislative means to implement such a proposal it is
clear that parliament was given considerable discretion under the constitution
to establish an effective electoral system. Clearly, the existing system does
not serve the interests of aboriginal Canadians. This should be a concern to
all Canadians, as the credibility and legitimacy of parliament is at issue.