Improving Political Representation of Marginalized Communities

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Leadership Friday, December 21, 2018 View Count = 1148

Improving Political Representation of Marginalized Communities

Samara's Research Director, Mike Morden, shares a few personal takeaways from the Beyond Numbers: Comparing Mechanisms for Substantive Representation of Ethnic Minorities and Indigenous Peoples conference that he recently attended at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. The conference is part of an ongoing global study called Ethnic Quotas and Political Representation, led by Drs. Karen Bird and Netina Tan of McMaster University.


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Earlier this month, I was fortunate to attend an international conference at McMaster University examining actions and institutions that are designed to ensure that marginalized communities are represented in national politics. This is a goal that we often talk about in Canada. But we typically talk about the representation of minority and Indigenous communities as an aspiration, rather than as a concrete course of action.

The fact is there is a whole menu of institutional changes that we could make to guarantee the presence of representatives from those communities in our legislatures. These mechanisms range from drawing electoral boundaries so that some ridings are likely to produce representation from a given group, to reserving a set number of seats in the legislature for members of a group, to establishing parallel representative bodies or other formal power-sharing arrangements between communities.

But none of these approaches come without trade-offs. And simply having representatives from marginalized communities present may not ensure that substantive representation—real care and consideration of the values and issues that matter to those communities—happens in political decision-making. How to make substantive representation happen was one of the key questions the conference probed.

In the future, I hope the Samara Centre will have opportunities to examine this question more closely. For now, here are a few brief takeaways from the conference:

  • International comparison is good. By bringing in perspectives from all continents, one of the things this conference accomplished was simply to remind me of how common it is for democracies to take real material steps to ensure representation for marginalized groups. That is neither an argument for or against these steps, but it’s helpful for thinking these issues through here at home, as Canada is often too limited in our political imagination. Canada has an early history of balancing group representation with popular democracy, but we have done little on this front since Confederation. And when we look abroad for inspiration, our tendency is to look only to the countries with political systems that are most familiar to us—the UK, for example. We should get in the habit of casting a wider net to broaden the universe of possibilities for our own system. There’s plenty we can learn—about what works and what has failed—even from countries whose political systems don’t track our own exactly.
  • Parties matter, maybe most of all. Several researchers converged on the same basic finding: no matter what you do to guarantee that minority and Indigenous legislators are present, the behaviour of political parties is going to determine whether or not those communities are meaningfully represented. In some cases, minority and Indigenous communities have organized their own parties, and can play a role in coalition governments or as important voices in opposition. In others, those communities have carved out space in mainstream parties. And in other systems, the party system has prevented Indigenous and minority legislators from getting the issues and views of their communities on the agenda. There are lessons for Canada here: that institutional change alone might not achieve substantive representation in the face of a closed party system. And perhaps, that there is much we could accomplish without having to change institutions, if Canadian political parties are ready to contribute.
  • Canada should get talking. The conference further persuaded me that Canada is neglecting an important conversation about how to formally strengthen Indigenous representation. In a number of other settler democracies, Indigenous peoples have been guaranteed formal representation in democratic institutions. In Finland, Norway, and Sweden, the Indigenous Sámi people elect representatives to Sámediggis—Sámi-specific debate and advisory bodies which are sometimes called parliaments, though they lack legislative authority. The New Zealand Parliament reserves seats for Māori, who have also been successful in contesting some open seats. Australia is currently debating whether and how to design a permanent Indigenous Voice to Parliament.  A Parliamentary committee published a report in favour of a “Voice” just a few weeks ago. It’s a fascinating example of a country openly grappling with how to improve Indigenous representation in national democratic politics, in all its complexity—and it’s a long way from reaching hard conclusions (and is steering into strong political headwinds, including opposition from the prime minister). But in Canada, mostly crickets.

    There are lots of hard questions ahead of us—questions about whether there is any model that could reflect the deep national diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and indeed whether Indigenous representation in national institutions is desired by the communities themselves. But whether as an end state, or as a means to negotiating other kinds of power-sharing on the territory, Indigenous peoples need better opportunities to be reflected in decision-making by Canadian governments. Our total neglect of this question is hard to justify.

The Beyond Numbers conference provided an excellent examination of some longstanding questions about governing in deeply divided societies. And while they may seem tangential to the present democratic recession, I don’t think they are. Given the rise in authoritarian populism, skepticism about liberal democracy and anxiety about diversity are deeply intertwined. I’m beginning to wonder if figuring out how to create opportunities for democracy-sharing among diverse communities is not just one of the challenges we face, but indeed the central challenge of modern representative democracy.


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