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Proportional Representation Will Ensure Indigenous Votes Count

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At the start of his term, Justin Trudeau promised to reset the relationship with Canada's Indigenous peoples because, as he said in the House of Commons, their "life in Canada has not been -- and is not today -- easy, equitable or fair."

Most Canadians agree that the conditions Indigenous people face economically and socially are unacceptable and long overdue for change. But to start that process would require Indigenous people to be at the table to represent their concerns themselves.

Here, Canada's current voting system is a key barrier because, as the late Indigenous Senator Len Marchand once noted, it "fragments aboriginal voting strength to the point where an aboriginal vote is next to meaningless." Marchand wrote this in 1990, when the House of Commons had only three Indigenous representatives, most from northern ridings where Indigenous peoples formed a majority.

There has been some progress since then -- 10 Indigenous MPs were elected in 2015 -- but Indigenous people are still under-represented, and Indigenous MPs still primarily represent northern ridings with significant concentrations of Indigenous people. This is problematic because, as the 2011 census demonstrates, a majority of Indigenous people actually live in Canada's urban centres, places where their distinctive voice and representational needs are typically overwhelmed by the dominant society.

trudeau indigenous
Trudeau pledged to work toward full reconciliation with Canadian Aboriginals as he accepted a final report on the abuses of the government's now-defunct system of residential schools for indigenous children. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

That is why the Trudeau government's promise to introduce a new voting system in time for a federal election in 2019 could make a real difference. If the government adopts a proportional model, and all serious experts have suggested they should, urban Indigenous voters would be significantly empowered to make their voices heard and have an impact on the election results.

The recent shift from our voting system to a form of proportional representation (PR) in New Zealand offers some striking concrete evidence of just how dramatic the potential impact could be. Under the new PR system, New Zealand's Indigenous people, the Maori, went from being consistently under-represented in their legislature to an almost perfect match between their percentage of the population and the percentage of elected MPs.

Prior to the introduction of the new voting system, Maori representatives were rarely elected, except in the four legislative seats set aside for them. Established in 1867, these special "Maori seats" became an effective ceiling for Maori representation, under-representing their voting strength. While registering as roughly 14 per cent of New Zealand's population by the 1990s, Maori were lucky to gain three to five per cent of the seats under the country's traditional first-past-the-post voting system (the same one Canada presently uses).

It's time to hear from Canada's Indigenous peoples directly.

But with the shift to proportional voting a number of important changes occurred. In the seven elections using proportional representation since 1996, the percentage of Maori MPs has met or exceeded their share of the population every time. Before the new system was adopted, only one party typically had Maori MPs, but under the new PR system, all the major parties have begun competing for Maori votes and have elected Maori MPs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Canada, through proportional voting Maori have been able to increase their impact on the political system regardless of where they live.

It's time to hear from Canada's Indigenous peoples directly. Research shows that when significant groups are not themselves at the table, their concerns won't be, either. This could be easily remedied by shifting to a proportional voting system, which has greatly increased the traction of New Zealand's Indigenous people on their political system and can do the same for Canada.

Decisively opening up our political system to greater Indigenous representation and influence would certainly help reset Canada's relationship with Indigenous people and begin to make good on the Trudeau government's promise.

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