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Electoral Insight – Aboriginal Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – November 2003

The Participation of Aboriginal Women in Canadian Electoral Democracy

The Participation of Aboriginal Women in Canadian Electoral Democracy

Manon Tremblay
Director, Research Centre on Women and Politics, University of Ottawa

To write on the participation of Aboriginal women in Canadian electoral democracy is to consider a negative: Aboriginal women are essentially absent from Canadian parliamentary spaces. This absence can be explained by their experiences as women and as Aboriginal people.Footnote 1

The fact that some Aboriginal people only fairly recently acquired the right to vote explains, in part, the paltry number of Aboriginal men and women elected to the House of Commons: since 1867, only 17 people self-declared as Aboriginal have been members of that House.Footnote 2 But the paltry number of Aboriginal parliamentarians can also be explained by the fact that a significant proportion of the Aboriginal population questions the right of the Canadian State to govern them; they offer instead an alternative vision, in which the Aboriginal peoples deal with the federal state as equals (nation to nation), by virtue of a self-government based on Aboriginal and treaty rights.Footnote 3 In short, the scarcity of Aboriginal people within Canadian parliamentary spaces is the result of at least two forces: as a rule, Aboriginal people have not tried to enter Parliament and the provincial legislatures, and the federal government has done little to invite them in. The existence of racism in non-Aboriginal society must also be taken into account. This process of shunting Aboriginal people aside is even more marked among Aboriginal women, who must grapple not only with the racism of non-Aboriginal society, but also with the sexism of male-dominated institutions. The objective of this article is to examine certain aspects of Aboriginal women's participation in Canadian electoral democracy, and to compare it with that of non-Aboriginal women. Its central theme is that the participation of Aboriginal women in a parliamentary system dominated by non-Aboriginal men of European background suffers from an accumulation of handicaps inherent in their being women and Aboriginal people.Footnote 4

Descriptive representation of Aboriginal women in Canadian parliamentary spaces

It was in 1960 that the federal legislature abolished the last formal restrictions on the political citizenship of Aboriginal women and men (and the people of the First Nations in particular). Since Confederation, Indians had had the right to vote in federal elections, "but only if they gave up their treaty rights and Indian status through a process defined in the Indian Act and known as 'enfranchisement'."Footnote 5 Inuit women and men had been able to vote in federal elections held after 1950. The Métis had no specific restrictions on their right to vote; at least the men did not: Métis women, like non-Aboriginal women, were not allowed to participate in the selection of members of the Canadian House of Commons until late in the second decade of the 20th century.

Since the majority of Canadian women were added to the federal electoral lists,Footnote 6 155 women have entered the Canadian House of Commons.Footnote 7 Of that number, two have been Inuit, First Nations or Métis: Ethel Dorothy Blondin-Andrew (member of a First Nation), elected for the first time in 1988, and Nancy Karetak-Lindell (Inuit), elected for the first time in 1997, both under the banner of the Liberal Party of Canada and still sitting in the House in 2003. There is also one Aboriginal woman in the Senate: Métis Thelma J. Chalifoux, appointed in 1997 to represent the Liberal Party. The situation is little different in the provincial and territorial legislatures, to which only a handful of women have been elected.Footnote 8 In 1991, Nellie Cournoyea became the first Aboriginal woman to serve as a first minister (in the Northwest Territories).Footnote 9

Research has offered some explanations for the low number of women in Canadian parliamentary spaces. Essentially, they concern the socialization process and gender-based social roles, and the rules of the political game. One hypothesis is that the socialization process does not encourage women to seek political roles. Moreover, their family, domestic and private responsibilities generate constraints on time and money and an isolation that limits their capacity to become politically involved.Footnote 10 The rules of the political game throw up a major obstacle to women in the candidate selection process. Since parties can run only one candidate in an electoral district, some local political elites, it is argued, hesitate to select a woman; doing this is considered to be taking more of a gamble with the electorate. Money also poses a problem for women, particularly the expense of the nomination campaign.Footnote 11 Finally, it is suggested that the plurality system limits the election of women and Aboriginal people.Footnote 12

Nellie Cournoyea
Nellie Cournoyea was the first Aboriginal woman in Canada to serve as a first minister.

To what extent do these explanations in fact explain the limited presence of Aboriginal women in Canadian parliamentary spaces? At first glance, they seem plausibly linked to their absence from the House of Commons; they provide an initial canvas for analysis to which we must, nevertheless, add the nuances of the specific experiences of Aboriginal women.

Aboriginal societies, like non-Aboriginal societies, evolve to the rhythm of gender-specific roles, created by the socialization process. While there is no consensus on the importance of women's role in traditional Aboriginal societies, the literature recognizes that "there has been a denigration of First Nations women's roles in contemporary society due to the impact of colonization."Footnote 13 To paraphrase Jamieson, under non-Aboriginal law, the Indian woman is citizen minus.Footnote 14 In addition to this loss of identity, Aboriginal women are also hit particularly hard by the tragedy of violence, a reality that cannot be separated from their exclusion from the circles of power.Footnote 15

The rules of the political game also contribute to the exclusion of Aboriginal women from Canadian parliamentary roles. In its final report, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing notes that certain practices that parties adopt to select their candidates contribute to the exclusion of women and Aboriginal people from Canadian parliamentary institutions.Footnote 16 It is possible to argue with little risk of being wrong that Aboriginal women have more trouble getting through the selection process to become a political party's official candidate than women from the non-Aboriginal majority, because of the combined weight of racism and sexism. Moreover, Aboriginal women on average have less education than non-Aboriginal women,Footnote 17 an attribute (among other sociodemographic markers such as profession or social class) deemed desirable by the local political elites responsible for selecting candidates. This suggestion is still a hypothesis, however, and must certainly be qualified by taking account of the sociodemographic situation of individual electoral districts.

The limited presence of women in the House of Commons could also be related to the cost of election campaigns, and especially nomination campaigns. Here again, this is likely to affect Aboriginal women more severely since, on average, they have fewer financial resources than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.Footnote 18

It is widely held that a plurality system is less favourable to the election of women.Footnote 19 However, the election method is less relevant to the proportion of women parliamentarians than the desire of political actors (and parties in particular) to increase their political presence. While it may appear that countries with a proportional system have, on average, more women in Parliament than those that use a plurality system,Footnote 20 the proportion of women in Canada's House of Commons is higher than in many countries that elect their representatives using the proportional system, such as Poland, Portugal, Israel, Colombia and Greece. Darcy, Welch and Clark make the same point:

"Greece and Israel show PR [proportional representation] is not sufficient by itself to produce substantial proportions of women parliamentarians. Women are only a small proportion of the Israeli Knesset and Greek Vouli (both list PR systems), while Canada and New ZealandFootnote 21 show that PR may not be necessary. Each has succeeded in electing substantial proportions of women with single-member districts. Indeed, the woman proportion of the New Zealand House of Representatives exceeds that of almost half of the proportional-representation nations. Thus, by themselves, PR, STV [single transferable vote], or SMD [single-member districts] election systems appear neither to guarantee women seats nor exclude them."Footnote 22

The conclusion, therefore, is that the election method does not automatically determine the number of women in a parliament, but that other factors must be taken into account, including the desire of the political elites to increase the number of female parliamentarians, a nuance also stressed by Lovenduski and Hills: "it is likely that a large part of the immediate explanation for low numbers of women in national office rests rather with the reluctance of political parties to promote women than with the mechanics of the electoral system."Footnote 23 Moreover, it is only under certain conditions that proportional representation favours the election of women: there must be lists, preferably closed lists; there must be several seats to be filled in an electoral district; the party must be in a position to have a number of its candidates elected; and, finally, the electoral threshold for a party to qualify for seats must be reasonably high.Footnote 24

In a democracy, ultimate power resides with the people, who can resist the election of more women parliamentarians. The experience of Nunavut is interesting in this regard. In 1994, the Nunavut Implementation Commission suggested gender-equal representation for the new Canadian territory. The original aspect of the proposal was parity: equal male/female representation for every electoral district. If this proposal had passed the referendum test,Footnote 25 the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut would have become the first parliament in the world with an equal number of women and men (an honour that has now gone to the National Assembly of Wales, despite the lack of acts or regulations designed to attain parity of representation). Aboriginal (and particularly Inuit) women would also have made serious gains over their non-Aboriginal sisters to the south.

"Substantive" representation of Aboriginal women in Canadian parliamentary spaces

Apart from the numbers, the issue at hand is the "substantive" representation of Aboriginal women in Canada's parliamentary system: are the needs, requests and interests of Aboriginal women heard in Canada's House of Commons? The current work on the participation of Aboriginal women in Canadian electoral democracy suggests that they are not. Some works do suggest that a clear majority of non-Aboriginal women MPs feel a responsibility to represent women, both inside and outside their electoral districts.Footnote 26

Recently, as part of my research into the role of female representation in parliaments deriving from the British tradition, I interviewed female members of New Zealand's House of Representatives. During the 1990s, this country gave up the plurality system in favour of a mixed election system in order, among other things, to increase Maori representation,Footnote 27 which benefited Maori women as well. When I asked them whether they felt a responsibility to represent the women of New Zealand, the female Maori deputies were unanimous: they represented Maori women, of course, but first and foremost they represented all Maori women and men. It seems that cultural identity is more important than sexual identity to these Maori MPs' role as representatives, perhaps because of a history of oppression and their socio-political status, which is still that of a minority. Garneau arrives at the same conclusion about female members of First Nations in Quebec.Footnote 28 It is a hypothesis that could inspire a closer look at the participation of Aboriginal women in Canada's electoral democracy.


What can be done to promote the participation of Aboriginal women in Canada's electoral democracy? First of all, it seems to me that this participation cannot be forced and that it must derive from the genuine desire of Aboriginal women and men to be involved in the political institutions of the non-Aboriginal majority.

Essentially, there have been three proposals on ways to promote the participation of Aboriginal people in Canada's electoral democracy: the Lortie Commission proposed the creation of Aboriginal electoral districts (rec. 1.4.12); the Charlottetown Accord, protected seats in the Senate for Aboriginal people; and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, an Aboriginal Parliament (rec. 2.3.51). Taking their inspiration from Maori representation in New Zealand, the proponents of separate representation argue, among other things, that it permits the expression and maintenance of a distinct identity; that it gives a group in the numerical minority some influence over political power; and that it is a recognition of culturally distinct groups within society and of their equality. On the other hand, the opponents of separate electoral districts for the representation of minority cultural groups argue that they promote the balkanization of society; that they restrict Aboriginal representatives to symbolic roles stripped of real power; and that they reserve "special treatment" for a minority group, and indeed are reminiscent of an apartheid system.Footnote 29 With respect to the second proposal, what is the point of reserving protected seats for Aboriginal people in an institution with no real control over the decision-making process? However, the idea of protected seats for Aboriginal people in a reformed Senate should not be rejected out of hand without a serious evaluation of the proposed reform.

I think the proposal for an Aboriginal Parliament is the most promising, because it offers a wide range of possibilities for self-government and democratic governance. To deliver on those possibilities, however, an Aboriginal Parliament would have to have real powers and resources, which is not the case in the proposal from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples it reserves a purely advisory role for this new body.Footnote 30 In addition, to make this third order of government as attractive to women as to men, an Aboriginal Parliament must reintegrate the proposal of the Nunavut Implementation Commission for gender-equal representation. That is an idea that could spread to the representation of non-Aboriginal women.


Footnote 1 The Aboriginal peoples of Canada consist of three groups: the Métis, the Inuit and the First Nations (Status and non-Status Indians). The Inuit and First Nations are subdivided into a host of nations.

Footnote 2 See the table "Aboriginal Candidates Elected in Canadian General Elections" at p. 29 in this issue.

Footnote 3 Robert A. Milen, Canadian Representation and Aboriginal Peoples: A Survey of the Issues, document prepared for the research program of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (December 1994), pp. 23. See also Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Vol. 2, Restructuring the Relationship (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996).

Footnote 4 This hypothesis does not imply that it is any easier for women to participate in Aboriginal power structures, as witness the sexism that band chief Roberta Jamieson faced in the leadership race for the Assembly of First Nations in 2003; Hélène Buzzetti, "Vote au leadership de l'Assemblée des Premières Nations. Une véritable course à trois," Le Devoir [Montréal], July 1213, 2003, p. B1.

Footnote 5 Elections Canada, A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997), p. 89.

Footnote 6 Women from the non-Aboriginal majority have been able to run in federal elections since 1919, one year after they were granted the right to vote. In 1950, Inuit women and men became qualified to vote and entitled to run as candidates. In 1960, all Indian people qualified to vote when the franchise was extended to all Indian women and men ordinarily resident on a reserve (until then this group had been excluded from the franchise); the entitlement to run as candidates was also extended accordingly.

Footnote 7 Manon Tremblay, "L'identité des députées et des sénatrices francophones et anglophones en politique fédérale canadienne," Recherches féministes Vol. 16, No. 1 (2003), pp. 542.

Footnote 8 A partial list includes Margaret Commodore (Yukon), Jeannie Marie Jewell (Northwest Territories), Norma (Anne) Kassi-Mercredi (Yukon), Alice McGuire (Yukon), Kathie Emma Nukon (Yukon), Lorraine Peter (Yukon) and Manitok Thompson (Northwest Territories and then Nunavut).

Footnote 9 Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott, Still Counting. Women in Politics Across Canada (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003), pp. 7475.

Footnote 10 Janine Brodie, Women and Politics in Canada (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1985), pp. 7797.

Footnote 11 Sylvia B. Bashevkin, Women and Party Politics in English Canada, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 170171. Since the electoral reform of 2003, this step on the road to Parliament has been regulated by the Canada Elections Act, at least to the extent of putting a ceiling on what nomination candidates spend. It will take a few federal elections before we can determine the effect on the election of women and Aboriginal people to the House of Commons.

Footnote 12 Thérèse Arseneault, "The Representation of Women and Aboriginals Under PR: Lessons from New Zealand," Policy Options Vol. 18, No. 9 (1997), pp. 912; Donley T. Studlar, "Will Canada Seriously Consider Electoral System Reform? Women and Aboriginals Should," in Henry Milner, ed., Making Every Vote Count. Reassessing Canada's Electoral System (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999), pp. 123132.

Footnote 13 Judith F. Sayers and Kelly A. MacDonald, First Nations Women, Governance and the Indian Act: A Collection of Policy Research Reports (Ottawa: Status of Women Canada, November 2001), p. 11.

Footnote 14 Kathleen Jamieson, Indian Women and the Law: Citizen Minus (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada for Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women and Equal Rights for Indian Women, 1978).

Footnote 15 Sayers and MacDonald, First Nations Women, Governance and the Indian Act, pp. 1415.

Footnote 16 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Final Report Vol. 1 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1991), pp. 278283.

Footnote 17 Statistics Canada (Housing, Family and Social Statistics Division), Women in Canada 2000: a gender-based statistical report (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 2000), pp. 276277.

Footnote 18 Statistics Canada, Women in Canada 2000, pp. 279280.

Footnote 19 Heather MacIvor, "Women and the Canadian Electoral System," in Manon Tremblay and Linda Trimble, eds., Women and Electoral Politics in Canada (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 2236; Richard E. Matland, "Enhancing Women's Political Participation: Legislative Recruitment and Electoral Systems," in Azza Karam, ed., Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance IDEA, 1998) pp. 6588; Wilma Rule, "Electoral Systems, Contextual Factors and Women's Opportunity for Election to Parliament in Twenty-Three Democracies," Western Political Quarterly Vol. 40, No. 3 (1987), pp. 477498.

Footnote 20 Judith Squires and Mark Wickham-Jones, Women in Parliament: A Comparative Analysis (Manchester: Equal Opportunities Commission, Research Discussion Series, 2001), p. 10.

Footnote 21 Following referendums in 1992 and 1993, New Zealand changed its electoral system to a mixed member proportional system. The change took effect at the 1996 election.

Footnote 22 R. Darcy, Susan Welch and Janet Clark, Women, Elections, and Representation, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), p. 141.

Footnote 23 Joni Lovenduski and Jill Hills, "Conclusions" in Joni Lovenduski and Jill Hills, eds., The Politics of the Second Electorate. Women and Public Participation (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 326.

Footnote 24 Matland, "Enhancing Women's Political Participation."

Footnote 25 The proposal was rejected by 57 percent of the voters in the referendum; Lisa Young, "Gender Equal Legislatures: Evaluating the Proposed Nunavut Electoral System," Canadian Public Policy Vol. 23, No. 3 (1997), pp. 306315.

Footnote 26 Manon Tremblay, "Women's Representational Role in Australia and Canada: The Impact of Political Context," Australian Journal of Political Science Vol. 38, No. 2 (2003), pp. 215238.

Footnote 27 Maoris have had reserved seats since 1867. See Keith Archer's article in this issue of Electoral Insight.

Footnote 28 Édith Garneau, Perspective de femmes des Premières nations au Québec sur les chevauchements identitaires : Entre le genre et la nation, Doctoral thesis (Montréal: Université du Québec à Montréal, 2002), p. 411. I thank Édith Garneau for her comments on an initial version of this text.

Footnote 29 Robert A. Milen, Canadian Representation and Aboriginal Peoples, pp. 56.

Footnote 30 On this subject see Paul L. A. H. Chartrand, "Canada and the Aboriginal Peoples: from Dominion to Condominium," in F. Leslie Seidle and David C. Docherty, eds., Reforming Parliamentary Democracy, (Montréal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003), pp. 112, 117.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.