Indigenous people need 'direct representation' in Parliament, argues Nunavut Tunngavik

Each of Canada's Indigenous groups should elect their own representatives outside of geographical boundaries, a territorial Inuit leader told the special committee on electoral reform Monday.

Indigenous peoples need to make 'imposed government' structure work for them, says Inuit leader

'Each of Canada's three Aboriginal peoples should have direct representation in a reformed House of Commons,' James T. Arreak told the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Inuit, Mé​tis and First Nations people in Canada need "direct representation" in the House of Commons, officials from Nunavut's land claims organization told the Special Committee on Electoral Reform in Iqaluit on Monday. 

Nunavut was the last stop on the committee's cross-Canada tour, although it still plans to hear from more witnesses in Ottawa before presenting a final report to the House of Commons by its Dec. 1 deadline.

James T. Arreak, chief executive officer of Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., gave the committee  a number of suggestions he hopes would ensure Inuit have a voice in the government that's been "imposed" upon them. 

"We know what it looks like to be on the outside looking in to the electoral system," said Arreak. 

"We have experienced colonialism with all of its attendant problems."

That's why he wants a change. 

Inuit, Métis and First Nations representation

"Each of Canada's three Aboriginal peoples should have direct representation in a reformed House of Commons," he said. 

Under Arreak's proposed system, Inuit would vote for an Inuit representative, Métis would vote for a Métis representative and First Nations people would vote for First Nations representatives.

"Representation in the range of two to four representatives from each of Canada's three aboriginal peoples would roughly track the New Zealand precedent." 
Arreak wants to ensure the Inuit voice in Parliament is not overpowered. (CBC)

New Zealand uses a Mixed Member Proportional system which allows citizens to cast two ballots: one for the person's local representative and another for their preferred party, thus ensuring the allotment of seats to each party coincides with the percentage of the popular vote it received. 

MMP is one of the alternatives to the current electoral system at which the committee is looking. 

But Arreak is more interested in another aspect of the system — it resulted in a proportional number of representatives of Maori descent. 

The Green Party has already noted how a change to a proportional voting system boosted Indigenous representation in New Zealand.

Constitutional restrictions?

The suggestion prompted questions from the committee, including Conservative MP Scott Reid.

"Baked into the constitutional provisions that structure the House of Commons is the concept of representation by population: the idea that all ridings should be roughly equivalent in size," said Reid. 

John Merritt, legal counsel for Nunavut Tunngavik, responded by pointing out that Nunavut is not the riding with the smallest population, since Prince Edward Island is divided into four separate ridings — an exception, pointed out Reid, that's spelled out in the constitution. 
Conservative MP Scott Reid questioned how a system like the one Arreak proposed could be created without a constitutional amendment. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Reid was likewise interested in how Arreak's suggested reform would work given that Inuit from across the country would vote for Indigenous representatives. 

"There's no provision in the Canadian constitution that permits seats that overlap provincial boundaries."

Aboriginal representation not a new idea

This is not the first time the notion of improving Indigenous representation has been discussed by Parliamentarians. 

In the early 1990s, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing decided the issue required so much attention it created a working group called the Committee for Aboriginal Electoral Reform.

Library of Parliament background paper suggests the group recommended the creation of Aboriginal electoral districts, created within provincial borders and, therefore, without the need for a constitutional amendment. 

Arreak says the right for Indigenous self-government should be enough justification for his proposal. 

"The rule book has been thrown back at us many times," said Arreak. 
The Special Committee on Electoral Reform wrapped up its cross-Canada tour in Iqaluit on Monday. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Looking at political decision making from afar is certainly not unknown to Inuit, Arreak says, seeing as how Inuit in the Eastern Arctic did not get the chance to cast a ballot in a federal election until 1962, despite having the right to vote extended to them in 1950, 10 years before it was extended to First Nations people. 

Arreak hopes the federal government will also consider adding a second representative for Nunavut. 

About the Author

Elyse Skura is a journalist at CBC Ottawa. Find her on Twitter at @eskura or contact her at