Opinion Politics

Engaged, inclusive, local: Northern reflections on federal electoral reform

On September 26, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform held hearings in Whitehorse, Yukon to seek citizens’ views on the important topic facing Canada today. The following was submitted by the author to the Committee to consider as part of its deliberations.

Committee Chair and Members, welcome to Yukon.  It is indeed a pleasure to appear before you on this important national topic.   

What I wish to speak to this afternoon relates largely to three of the principles you have been asked to explore in your mandate statement, specifically Principle 2 on engagement, Principle 3 on accessibility, and Principle 5 on local representation.  I am coming at these three areas with a Northern bias that I hope you will consider as you address the broad interests of this large and complex nation. 

Relating to Principle #2 on engagement, I highlight that, among other things, you are to encourage participation, enhance social cohesion and offer opportunities for inclusion of underrepresented groups in the political process. 

We recognize that each territory is privileged in that each has one representative in the House of Commons despite our relatively small populations.  However, this is about regional character and distinction.

With respect to this principle, I would suggest you consider the following. 

In our Canada of today, we have set as a very high priority working to find a path to reconciliation with the First Peoples of this country, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Peoples. 

One avenue that is open to you to contribute to this reconciliation is to consider some form of Guaranteed Representation in the House of Commons for Aboriginal Peoples. I do not know if New Zealand’s Chief Electoral Officer spoke to this unique aspect of the New Zealand Parliamentary system, but they have had guaranteed seats for the Maori dating back to 1867. Today there are seven Maori seats in their House of Representatives, which is determined through a Mixed Member Proportional System. There are two rolls, one for Maori voting. Maori can choose whether they wish to vote on the general or the specific Maori roll.    

I am not suggesting this particular model, only to say that this is an example of where a Parliamentary system has embraced a unique approach so that a First People — in the New Zealand case, the Maori — can “see themselves” represented directly in the system. 

I am reminded of Jean-Pierre Kingsley’s presentation to you. The fifth point that he asked you to consider was that the “Canadian reality must be reflected in the system of representation”; that is, “Canadians must be able to see themselves in the representatives and system by which they choose them.”

I believe there is no better way to achieve this than by your Committee actively engaging with Aboriginal representative groups such as the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit and Metis organizations, among others, to determine if there is an avenue forward that would achieve this principle for the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. I do not know if you have hearings set with these groups, but if not, I would suggest that you reach out to them. 

I note that there is Aboriginal interest in reform at the Parliamentary level that would build linkages between our Aboriginal citizenry and Parliament. You may be aware that in 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) recommended that a House of First Peoples be established as a third chamber of Parliament. The details on its role and responsibilities are set out in the RCAP report. In brief, it recommends a Chamber with legislative responsibility over Bills that have substantive impact over Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. 

In addition, in its 1996 “Four-Ten” Declaration of Dedication and Commitment, the Land Claims Agreements Coalition, a body representing all Aboriginal groups with modern land claims agreements in Canada, called for the creation of an independent implementation and review body, perhaps similar to the Office of the Auditor General, reporting directly to Parliament on progress of land claims implementation matters that relate to today’s Modern Treaties. This proposal is not about the electoral process, but I use this example along with the RCAP proposal to underscore that the Aboriginal First Peoples see Parliament as a fundamentally important institution relating to their relationship with Canada. 

In short, I would suggest you consider how electoral reform might assist in our reconciliation journey in Canada. 

Online voting may help many areas of Canada, but do not assume that it is a good option for all regions and communities.

Principle #3 on accessibility and inclusiveness calls for change that would support access by all eligible voters. This takes one immediately to the consideration of online voting, and indeed in the first paragraph of the Committee’s mandate, online voting is expressly noted as a matter for the Committee to consider. I wish to bring to the Committee’s attention that there are many communities throughout the North that do not have reliable communications infrastructure to reliably support this voting option. Indeed, even in Yukon, if a backhoe in northern British Columbia takes out our one fibre optic cable, the entire territory drops off the web. A second line is being worked on, but I use this reality Yukoners face to raise the point that rural and remote areas of Canada do not have the same level of access to or reliance in this mode of connection. Online voting may help many areas of Canada, but do not assume that it is a good option for all regions and communities. 

I’ll turn now to Principle #5 on local representation. It recognizes the value that Canadians attach to community, to Members of Parliament understanding local conditions and advancing local needs at the national level, and to having access to Members of Parliament to facilitate resolution of their concerns and participation in the democratic process. 

Here I would like to provide a brief history on the Yukon’s democratic journey. It has not been straightforward. 

Some of this history I am going to recount to you is not about Yukon’s relationship with Parliament, but it is a governance “backdrop” to consider when reflecting on the interests of a sub-national jurisdiction in Canada, that being Yukon.   

Our democratic “journey” has been inconsistent to say the least. In the late 1890s, the population of this new territory jumped to over 40,000 with gold seekers moving to the Yukon in the search for wealth. Between 1898 and 1908, the Yukon’s legislature (at that time referred to as the Yukon Council) grew to a body of eight representatives. This was a wholly elected assembly, in keeping with the evolutionary track most provinces followed through their histories.     

Due to a massive drop in population, combined with extreme fiscal pressures on Canada during World War I, this “normal” evolution of representative government in Yukon took a nasty turn. In 1918 the Yukon’s Constitution, the federal Yukon Act, was amended to give authority to the Governor in Council to abolish the elected Council and turn legislating authority to an appointed body. Although this did not happen given considerable pressure from Yukoners, the Yukon Council was reduced in number from 10 to three. This rump stayed in place until 1951 when the Council numbers increased to five; today it is 19. 

In the intervening years there was another event that threatened the very existence of “Yukon” as a distinct sub-national entity in Canada. In 1937 a deal was announced between British Columbia’s Premier Duff Pattullo and Canada for the annexation of Yukon to B.C. Only thanks to a particularly thorny political issue around Catholic schools did this deal not go through. We were very close to becoming just another Northern region in the province of British Columbia. 

This is important to note because Yukon’s political rights journey has been turbulent at best. We do not want this current process on electoral reform to take away any of the advancements that we’ve fought for over these many years. 

I recommend, in light of this uncertain evolution of political development in Yukon, that you be very careful in determining how a form of proportional representation, if that is indeed what you hone in on, will impact not just Yukon, but the three Northern territories. 

Without doubt, our identities are distinct. In 1995 I co-authored the book Northern Governments in Transition with University of Toronto Political Scientist Graham White. A conclusion we reached was, and I quote, “…the Yukon, the Western NWT and Nunavut region differ markedly from one another. At the same time, complex cultural and lifestyle differences are found within each region.” Just as you might risk “life and limb” if you were to suggest that there are few differences between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, or between Alberta and British Columbia, you may wish to be careful suggesting that the three territories are of similar social, ethnic, economic, or political character. This would be a grave mistake. 

As a consequence I would caution that whatever model or models you wish to propose, you should not suggest a commonality across the Northern region. I suspect you would not think of proportional districts that would overlay a number of provinces. Similarly, do not consider “North” as a homogenous political state that can be addressed as a political single entity. This would be a profound mistake and completely contrary to the local principle that you are asked to uphold in your deliberations over the model of choice. 

We recognize that each territory is privileged in that each has one representative in the House of Commons despite our relatively small populations.  However, this is about regional character and distinction. This recognition of the Canadian identity, a collection of its many regions, should not be lost in an effort to find the right proportional mix.◉

 Photo credit: istockphoto

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